Few weeks before the end of the year 2015, some political pundits in Nigeria made a series of analyses on the major events and institutions that could shape the then upcoming year in the country. Some of these analysts emphasized that 2016 would be the year of the Nigerian Judiciary. It would be a year they said, that will serve as a litmus test for the Nigerian Judicial Arm of government as an institution that can self-reform not only under President Buhari but under a relatively new era ushered in by a critical election that has swept away many of those who are seen to have negatively dictated the course of politico-judicial events in the country from 1999 to 2015.
In the build up to 2016, major election cases that caught the public eye had reached advanced stages and were due for judgements at various times of the new year; many corruption cases especially those involving the arms deal scandal had begun as well as a host of others. Eight months into 2016, we can conclude from events that the judiciary has not lived up to expectation. President Buhari himself had said the judiciary so far was yet to perform its functions to the satisfaction of Nigerians. With the remarkable progress made by the 2015 polls, the judiciary had the opportunity to end impunity, violence and rigging in our electoral system once and for all but however gave all of them a lifeline with those Supreme Court gubernatorial judgments of Rivers, Akwa-Ibom and a host of other states.
The judgements were widely condemned even by the most neutral of neutrals. With the nature with which the Nigerian electoral system had been bastardized since 2003, there was no way a successful 2015 elections alone could cleanse it. Many expected the judiciary to not only consolidate the gains of 2015, but to perfect it. The lower election tribunals performed fairly but not up to expectations and the appeal courts did a job that was a little above average and would have done better if not for the different conflicting decisions made on similar cases that dominated their judgements. The Supreme Court upturned everything in what looks like exploiting some narrow loopholes for upholding the theoretical law at the expense of practical justice.
The card reader which received wide appraisal as the major instrument that ended electoral impunity in the country was portrayed as ‘illegal’ or ‘unconstitutional’ by the court. Unfortunately, the seeds of those Supreme Court judgments have yielded the fruits of more violence, desperation and attempted rigging in many re-run and gubernatorial elections that followed the 2015 elections leading to so many inconclusive and suspended elections. A hitherto determined and confident INEC has been rendered helpless once again.
The ‘win-at-all-cost’ and the ‘it-is-better-to-be-taken-to-court-than-to-go-to-court-on-election-matters’ mentalities have carried the day. The prosecution of corruption cases began in earnest with some improved pace which made it appear as if the reforms through the Administration of Criminal Justice Act were working on one hand and the change mantra of the Buhari Government is positively affecting judicial proceedings on the other, but that had since slowed down and now cases are taking the familiar path of time wasting, endless adjournments and giving priority to technicalities against merit.
However, apart from the internal court problems, the attitudes of lawyers as well as the prosecutors themselves have not helped matters. The number of reported judicial scandals involving judges that broke out in 2016 is a serious cause for worry. The reported scandal involving the renowned Lawyer Ricky Tarfa and Justice Ibrahim Auta of the Federal High Court is still fresh on our minds. Tarfa is among other things being accused of introducing and using his clients who have their families standing trial before the court of Justice Auta to donate money at a book launch in honour of the judge, thereby violating the code of conduct for judges in Nigeria. This is coming at a time the Justice Ayo Salami and ACN saga is still not forgotten.
There are many other resolved and unresolved scandals involving judges that keep denting the image of the Nigerian Judiciary. There are perhaps hundreds of others that we may never hear of. Recently, courts were reported to have given seven different conflicting judgements and rulings on the leadership saga of the People’s Democratic Party involving the two factions of Ali Modu Sheriff and Ahmed Makarfi. From May 12, 2016 to July 28, 2016, the Federal High Court in Lagos, the FCT High Court (twice), Federal High court Abuja (twice) and the Federal High Court in Porthacourt have delivered one judgment, ruling and injunction or the other in favour or against the two factions and nobody knows what court will give what judgement or injunction on the same matter tomorrow.
Dr. Jibrin Ibrahim, a pro-democracy activist believes that judges listen to radio and read newspapers and if they do not, they should be forced to. He wondered why judges who are aware of previous rulings and judgments accept new cases on the same issue if the issue of compromise is not at stake. Jibrin also added while also citing Justice Akinola Aguda from a lecture he delivered in 1986 saying that, it is apparent today that we have moved beyond the power to acquire quality lawyers which in itself makes equality before the law impossible since others can’t afford such, to the purchase of judges. The saga in Abia is the most recent example of how the judiciary are causing confusion and political instability. A Federal High Court in Abuja sacked Governor Okezie Ikpeazu on June 27 on tax fraud and ordered INEC to issue fresh certificate of return to his runner-up opponent in the primary elections, Mr Sampson Ogah. Within hours, another court in Abia State (which is not a Court of Appeal) barred the state’s Chief Judge from swearing-in Ogah.
It took the efforts of an Appeal Court which asked the parties to maintain status quo pending the determination of the case to douse the heated atmosphere in the state and restore temporary calm and stability. Though many judges still maintain their integrity due to their exceptional individual conducts, but the integrity of the judiciary as a system has gradually eroded; the common man no longer sees it as his last hope, it is the special man that does. The abuse and disregard for court orders by those in power may not be unconnected to the general degradation of judicial integrity. It seems, the judiciary can no longer assert its full authority to protect itself from the incessant abuse of court orders by the executive and powerful individuals because it commands little respect in the eyes of many. While the legislature checks the excesses of the executive, the judiciary checks the excesses of both as well as itself.
These are some of the things the National Judicial Council must look into and address. The allegations that corruption has eaten deep into the court registries and judicial administrative systems must also be addressed. The reported cases of alleged bribery and corruption among courts’ registrars, staff and officers who frustrate the smooth administration of justice must be investigated and dealt with. Despite all these, it is fair that we acknowledge some external factors largely beyond its control that have led the Nigerian judiciary to find itself in its current state. The issue of inadequate manpower and poor funding are twin obstacles drawing it back.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Mahmud last year, when the members of the Senate Committee on Judiciary paid him a visit lamented that: ‘there are only 1074 judges of superior courts in the country, meaning that only one superior court judge adjudicates for 158,287 Nigerians based on conservative estimates. At the appeal courts, we now boast of one judge for 1,888,888 Nigerians and it is one Supreme Court judge for every 10 million Nigerians.” With these figures, one must understand the difficulties experienced by judges in discharging their duties. Other problems are excessive executive threat and political interference, corrupt system, general high cost of legal proceedings and a host of numerous others.
The National Judicial Council has been doing some clean-up over the years, even though that has not adequately tackled the problems at hand. Some judges have been sacked, some compulsorily retired and others suspended or sanctioned. However, these have not significantly proven to serve as deterrent to other judges. Therefore, the council should step up its efforts to cleanse the judiciary of all negative elements for optimal performance. After so many years of anomalies and with the startling events that dominated late 2015 to early 2016, many expected the judiciary to significantly and positively change by now, but with what we are witnessing, that change is far from close and not even the reforms brought about by the Administration of Criminal Justice Act has significantly changed things so far.
The problems are stubbornly getting more and more complex by the day and some of them look to be almost beyond redemption. With President Buhari himself helplessly admitting at a workshop for Nigerian judges at the National Judicial Institute recently, that the judiciary is blocking his progress particularly in the anti-corruption campaign, the only action left for us besides continuing to press for genuine reforms is to pray to God to save the Nigerian Judiciary.
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.