When a man who is trained to weigh every word he utters decides to speak out loud about a menace, he deserves full attention.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, last week, cautioned judges against accepting gifts from corrupt people, especially politicians and businessmen.
According to the CJN, judges come across juicy gifts in the course of handling high-profile cases, such as those involving mouth-watering financial and business transactions.
The CJN gave the charge at the Supreme Court Complex during the inauguration of six-newly appointed judges of the National Industrial Court.
He said, “I am making it clear to you now that you must flee from such disguised danger.”
The six new judges are Justices Subilim Danjuma, Mohammad Hamza, Damachi-Onugba Agede, Hassan Yakubu, Buhari Sami and Sanda Yelwa.
Two weeks ago, the National Judicial Council endorsed the investigation of seven judges who were accused of engaging in sundry acts of corruption.
The legal body, which is statutorily empowered to discipline erring judicial officers in the country, said it set up panels to probe the judges, after a two-day meeting it held on June 14 and 15.
The meeting, according to a statement that was signed by the Director of Information at the NJC, Soji Oye, was chaired by justice Ariwoola, who doubles as the Chairman of the Council.
The action is coming at a time when stakeholders in the justice sector are demanding an investigation into a claim by a federal lawmaker and husband to a former President of the Court of Appeal, which indicted the judiciary.
The Nigerian Bar Association, had described as shocking, a public confession by Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa, that he influenced the decisions of his wife, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, while she was the President of the Court of Appeal.
While condemning the indicting statement that Senator Bulkachuwa made at a valedictory session that was held for the 9th Senate, NBA, which is the umbrella body of lawyers in the country, demanded an investigation.
Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, has since dissociated herself from the comments allegedly made by her husband on the floor of the National Assembly.
The retired Justice stated that as President of the Court, her fellow colleagues could attest to the fact that she never interfered with the independence of any of the justices of the court in the discharge of their judicial functions.
According to her, she never, throughout her 40 years on the bench, influenced any decisions, stating further that her decisions were always based on facts, laws, conscience and the oath of office she took.
Meanwhile, even though the NJC did not disclose names of the judges under probe, it, however, revealed that they are “judicial Officers from the Court of Appeal and State High Courts.”
“A corrupt judicial system is a sign of a weak state because corruption undermines all institutions”
The Council said it considered reports from various Investigation Committees and the Preliminary Complaints Assessment Committees on petitions written against 33 Judicial Officers from both the appellate and the high courts, and agreed with the recommendation of the Committee that the seven judges have questions to answer.
In the Fourth Republic especially, the judiciary has been controversial, smeared by corruption and inconsistency.
The latest clampdown by the NJC restores the topic to the front burner.
Ordinarily, the judiciary is seen as the last hope of the common man, especially in Nigeria where the legislature and the executive soil their hands with corruption.
Many judges have become notorious for corrupt enrichment through ‘cash and carry’ judgments, especially in election matters generally, and in election tribunals, more specifically.”
Former Justices of the Supreme Court, the late Kayode Eso and Samson Uwaifo, had earlier separately warned of massive corruption in the judiciary.
While Eso said some judges appointed to election petition tribunals became billionaires, Uwaifo cried out that corruption was creeping from the lower to the appellate courts. Lawyers, litigants, and their cohorts on the Bench form an axis of corruption.
At the Supreme Court, judgements in cases like the 2015 Akwa Ibom State governorship election and the 2019 Imo State version remain indelibly incomprehensible to many. Some of the violence in Imo State cannot be totally divorced from the controversial rulings.
Undeniably, the former regime of President Muhammadu Buhari was not completely silent on judicial corruption.
While alleging corruption, State Security Services officers, in an ill-timed operation, invaded the homes of two Justices of the Supreme Court and two Federal High Court judges in Abuja in the middle of the night in October 2016.
As expected, there was indignation over the misstep. Also, the anti-graft agencies have put some senior lawyers on trial. These lawyers are often convicted at the lower courts, but the verdicts are often overturned on technicalities at the Supreme Court. At the end of the day, nothing was achieved. It shows that the government has not devised a winning strategy to fight corruption in the judiciary.
The mess lies partly in the composition of the NJC. The Third Schedule, Section I of the 1999 Constitution empowers the CJN to appoint a sizable number of NJC members.
This confers too much power and influence on the CJN. It should be reviewed and independent members with integrity from other walks of life appointed through a transparent process.
A corrupt judicial system is a sign of a weak state because corruption undermines all institutions.
A constitution amendment is required to establish judicial councils at the state level, comprising the Bench, Bar, and laypersons of integrity.
The anti-graft agencies should not repeat their mistakes; after conducting their investigations on judiciary branch suspects, they should hand over the cases to the appropriate agency for prosecution.
The NJC should come down hard on judges who undermine the polity with their reckless orders. They should be prosecuted and kicked out of the system.
We call on the CJN as chairman of the NJC, the Federal Judicial Service Commission and Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee to initiate wide ranging reforms that would restore the honour and integrity of all involved with the judiciary.