Posted by News Express | 25 September 2014 | 3,342 times
On June 14, 1993, two days after that memorable presidential election between the late Bashorun M.K.O Abiola of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Alhaji Bashir Tofa of the National Republican Convention (NRC), I was (among several other reporters) at the headquarters of the National Electoral Commission (NEC), as it was then called, in Abuja awaiting the final collation and release of result. Around 3 PM on that day, we were invited to the office of then NEC Public Affairs Director, Dr. Tonnie Iredia, who gave us a terse press statement to the effect that further release of the Presidential election result had been suspended in deference to a court injunction obtained by the Chief Arthur Nzeribe-led Association for Better Nigeria (ABN).
Given that there was an ouster clause in the enabling decree guiding the elections which had empowered NEC to act above the courts, obeying the said order given by the late Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the Abuja High Court was curious. Even at that, the Judge herself stated clearly in the controversial ruling that it could be disobeyed. It was therefore evident that by suspending announcement of result, the electoral commission was playing out a script written elsewhere.
As a reporter with the African Concord magazine owned by Abiola, there was only a thin line between my professional duty and my interest in the fortunes of my employer who for all practical purposes had won the election. Therefore, on getting the statement, I rushed to our office to call Ambassador Baba-Gana Kingibe, then Abiola’s running mate and someone with whom I was fairly close, to intimate him of what was going on. Although it was evident he had been briefed before my call, Kingibe nonetheless asked me to come to his room at NICON-NOGA Hilton Hotel (now Transcorp Hotel) with the statement.
However, before I got to the hotel, no fewer than six SDP Governors were already there with Kingibe and what struck me was that a decision had apparently been taken on what to do. Right in my presence, three of the Governors (one from South-West, another from South-South and the third from the North-East) made calls to their respective states. Even when I did not know the people with whom they were speaking, the game was clear: the persons on the other end of the lines were instructed to go and meet certain named Judges of their states’ High Courts to obtain ex-parte orders that would compel the electoral commission to release the presidential election result!
In simple term, what the governors decided was that since the Prof. Humphrey Nwosu-led NEC was relying on an Abuja court order to stop the release of the election result, they too could procure such order from their states to get the Commission to release the result. And within hours, the said judicial orders came from two states and were well publicised for the attention of NEC which predictably ignored them. As it would happen, General Ibrahim Babangida who contrived the whole political logjam capitalised on that development to later annul the election to “save the judiciary from anarchy.”
Although I have told this story before in the past, looking back today, the real issue is not that the governors wanted and got the court orders they requested but rather that each was specific as to which judge whoever they were sending should go to. What that implies is that it is not from all courts that you would get such kangaroo injunctions and not all judges could be easily manipulated. That is good for our system. But it is also as bad that there are judges who specialise in black market injunctions that are rooted more in politics and pecuniary gains than observance of the rule of law. In a society where you have a preponderance of such judges, the system is in jeopardy.
Ordinarily, I do not like to write anything critical of our judiciary. It is not because I am not aware of some of the challenges within the arm of government (in fact, I heard several unpleasant, including salacious, tales about many judges during my brief stint in government); but rather because it is one institution that I believe should be guarded jealously in the interest of all of us. To the extent that the judiciary is central to holding a functioning society together, it is important that we avoid anything that would impugn the credibility of our men and women on the bench. It is also important to recognise the positive role the judiciary has played in the last 15 years.
However, I am constrained to make this intervention based on the candour of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, who has refused to live in denial about a problem that would just not go away. Ever since she assumed office some three years ago, she has continuously highlighted the challenge of corruption in the judiciary and has in fact dealt with many such cases. On Monday, Mukhtar went public again and she deliberately chose her platform: venue of a workshop organised by the National Judicial Institute for workers within the arm of government.
Said the CJN: “Now more than ever, the public has become more critical of the conduct of judicial staff, perhaps buoyed by public outcry against unwholesome conduct of the judicial staff like leakage of judgments before delivery, demanding bribes before the preparation of records of appeal, acting as go-between for some overzealous litigants and some corrupt judicial officers, ostentatious lifestyles beyond legitimate earnings and host of other activities.”
Apparently not done, Mukhtar said further: “These corrupt activities of some judicial staff have raised serious issues as to the credibility and integrity of the persons who are employed to assist the judicial officers in the performance of their duties. Some of the corrupt ones amongst you have gone ahead to solicit and collect millions of naira from unscrupulous litigants on the pretext that they are acting for the judicial officers handling their cases. This is bad and reprehensible. Many judges and magistrates have been violently attacked by hoodlums on the mistaken belief that they did not perform even after money has been given to them through their staff.”
Unfortunately, as serious a charge as the CJN remark may sound (and notwithstanding that she specifically targeted court officials and not judges), she only confirmed the fact that nothing much has changed. Indeed, at some point in the early years of the current democratic dispensation, politicians found it far cheaper to use the courts to scuttle events than to procure thugs. The situation was so bad that in 2002, then CJN, Justice Mohammed Lawal Uwais publicly decried the indiscreet granting of ex-parte applications for interim or interlocutory injunctions to stop legitimate functions. According to Uwais, “the only inference one can draw from such behaviour is that the judicial officer so involved cannot feign ignorance but are acting or acted deliberately in bad faith for improper motives...I have heard it said that some legal practitioners act as agents for litigants in giving bribe to Judges..”
Whether we realise it or not, that the culture of impunity is growing in our country is essentially because the judiciary is failing in its duty. While there are several men and women of integrity on the bench (and among court officials) who are doing their very best, there are also more than a few other rotten ones. The danger is that when people realise that they cannot settle disputes through the instrumentality of the law, because of those unscrupulous characters (including Judges, lawyers and court officials), they resort to self-help. But beyond that, the situation has reached a level in which public officials now act as if there are no consequences for bad behaviour. Afterall, cases of those who steal billions of Naira will take forever to adjudicate after which they could be asked to pay some ridiculous fines from their pockets and go home free.
Nothing underscores the gravity of such a state of affair more than the opening line on the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) which states: “A serious impediment to the success of any anti-corruption strategy is a corrupt judiciary. An ethically compromised judiciary means that the legal and institutional mechanism designed to curb corruption, however well-targeted, efficient or honest, remains crippled. Unfortunately, evidence is steadily and increasingly surfacing of widespread corruption in the courts in many parts of the world.”
However, as we have seen in recent past, a compromised judiciary also poses a serious threat to democracy and that was what the example of Justice Samson Egbo-Egbo demonstrated very clearly before he was eventually booted out. For those who may have forgotten the notorious affair, on July 10, 2003, then Anambra State Governor, Dr Chris Ngige (now a Senator), was abducted in broad daylight on the instruction of those who at that period conjured his ascension to power even when on the strength of what we would later hear, he did not win the election. Somehow, Ngige survived the initial assault and decided to fight back but the forces against him appeared stronger.
On July 22 of the same year in Abuja, Justice Egbo-Egbo granted an ex-parte injunction asking Ngige to stop parading himself as Governor and hand over to his deputy, Dr. Okey Udeh. Following the public outcry that greeted the said order, the Judge, a week later, put the blame at the doorstep of the court registrar: “The order I made was not the one drawn up by the senior registrar. One would have expected him to lift the five orders I made,” he told a bewildered court audience.
But not even then Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Chief Akin Olujimi, would buy that as he told the judge: “You have clarified the issue, but there would have been no need to ask the applicant to sign an indemnity if you have not granted an injunction.” To put it in layman’s language, what Olujimi was telling the Judge was that he had given himself away in the ruling because after granting the injunction, Egbo-Egbo had actually directed: “Plaintiffs/ Applicants file an undertaking to indemnify the respondents if it is later discovered the order ought not to have been given.”
Although the National Judicial Commission (NJC) would ultimately sacrifice Egbo-Egbo, the Anambra State saga exposed the underbelly of our judiciary and the danger posed by compromised judicial officers. Unfortunately, there have been several other cases since then some of which suggest that our judicial system may have been deregulated to the extent that we now have “independent judicial marketers”. That was the import of Monday’s intervention by Justice Mukhtar. Yet if this democracy is to survive, it is important for the judiciary as an institution and judges as individuals not only to be impartial to those who appear before them but also for the wider public to have the confidence that their cases will be decided fairly and in accordance with the law. And, as the CJN said, that would not happen in situations in which court officials are so powerful as to determine who gets justice and at what price. But to the extent that lawyers are also part of the problem, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) should fish out the corrupt ones among them for appropriate sanction.
In spite of the prevalence of corruption in the judiciary it must be pointed out that the institution is the only arm of government with a functional in-built corrective mechanism. Since 1999, many judges have been flushed out of the bench on the recommendation of the NJC. We must also not forget that in moments of tension the judiciary has intervened to stabilise the polity. However, in asking the bar and bench to restore the lost glory of the judiciary we recall, with nostalgia, the era when Udo Udoma, Akinola Aguda, Taslim Elias headed the judiciary of Uganda, Botswana and the International Court of Justice respectively.
In the final analysis, what should worry us is that the disruptive power of corruption in the judiciary undermines the orderly development of the larger society in two key ways. Belief in the rule of law as the key to social and political order falls apart when individuals get as much justice as they are capable of paying for. The broad majority of citizens lose confidence in a system that openly protects criminals because they can afford the judgments they desire. In the political realm, our democratic aspirations have too often been frustrated by corrupt judicial officers who thwart the popular mandate of the people as expressed through the ballot. It is therefore my hope that those concerned would take note of the warning sounded by the CJN who will be leaving office on November 20 this year, just some weeks away. Her message is simple: Judicial calling is a noble one that should have no place for people who are used to buying and selling. A word should be enough for the wise.
•This piece by Adeniyi (shown in photo) originally appeared in his column “The Verdict” in today’s edition of ThisDay. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
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