Buhari’s complaints against the Judiciary
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari might have indirectly indicted the nation’s judiciary by his remarks at the All Nigeria Judges Conference, but his worry is in accord with the public concern – that the judicial system in general performs below the expectation of Nigerians; and that there is need to redeem its faltering image.
The president’s complaints range from ‘allegations of judicial corruption’, ‘dilatory tactics by lawyers sometimes with the apparent collusion of judges… to stall trials indefinitely [and] denying the state and the accused persons of a judicial verdict’, to a ‘negative perception arising from long delays in the trial process… that have damaged the international reputation of the Nigerian judiciary, even among its international peers.’
At a different forum early May, then Vice-President-elect Yemi Osinbajo, a Senior Advocate and professor of law, had noted that the nation’s criminal justice system ‘is slow and it almost always ensures that people charged …[are] not tried forever…’
Even as the judiciary remains the hope of the common man, the observations on it are far from fabricated. Indeed, in June, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, obviously aware of negative public perception of the institution he heads, said on the occasion of the induction of new judicial officers that ‘the Nigerian judiciary is now more prepared and more poised than ever to rid itself of all the ugly dirt inflicted on her by unscrupulous, fraudulent and corrupt persons occupying judicial positions in Nigeria.’ To achieve this, he cited the Code of Conduct that is in place to guide judicial officers, and the national and state judicial councils that are ‘adequately empowered’ to deal with misconduct.
President Buhari’s latest admonition has, however, raised the question as to whether the CJN’s strategy is working effectively. It does seem that the judiciary can do with more than the routine counselling it has been receiving, from within and outside, to redress these professional shortcomings.
It is true that factors that hamper its capacity to dispense justice as and when due are, too often, well-known. It is difficult nonetheless to not hold that judges can and should be more assertive, more courageous, demonstrably impartial, and much more efficient in doing their work. For, according to former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Mariam Alooma Mukhtar in 2012, ‘[except laws are administered] fairly, rationally, consistently, impartially, and devoid of any improper influences, a society cannot operate under the rule of law.’ It is no exaggeration then that if the judiciary fails, hope is lost for the survival of a democratic system of government that by definition is based on the rule of law. The attendant damage to the nation is too grave to contemplate. Indeed, this is the reason that, when all efforts to resolve a dispute in the polity have been exhausted, the judiciary has the final – some would say oracular – word as pronounced by ‘an independent and virtuous judiciary.’ In this connection, it is worthy to recall the late Justice Anthony Aniagolu’s counsel to members of the Bench to dispense justice with courage and integrity because ‘you …most directly represent God on earth because God is justice and so, by delivering justice on the people, you are sitting on [God’s] throne.’ In January 2012, the then CJN, Justice Dahiru Musdapher begged members of the Bench ‘in the name of justice [to decide cases] on their merits and not on technicalities.’
The judiciary needs to rise to the level of excellence expected of persons who ‘represent God on earth.’ A number of judges have been sacked, some reprimanded, for either professional failing or integrity failure. Ultimately, the choice and burden of self-redemption lies heavily on members of the Bench. The CJN reportedly blamed the low performance of the judiciary on underfunding. That can only be a partial reason; the integrity of a judicial officer is essentially a function of his good or bad character. So, there is an abiding responsibility of every judge to commit to personal incorruptibility and to do justice no matter whose ox is gored. On the other hand, the CJN must walk his talk and enforce the rules as need be, without fear or favour.
Buhari recommends a reform of the judicial system; that is required almost on a continuous basis. On the other hand, a president that genuinely desires a clean and respectable judiciary must address those factors that hinder it and encourage crooked acts on the Bench. The first of these is paucity of fund and the glaring violation of the constitutional provision of financial autonomy of the judiciary.
Besides, instead of the executive arm of government impugning publicly, the integrity of another arm, there should be internal collaboration between them to facilitate the workings of government. In the name of independence of each, and respect for one another, the president can bring to the attention of the CJN his complaints against the system. And if there is enough evidence against an erring judicial officer, the executive has the resources to bring her to book within the ambit of the law. Otherwise, Buhari’s public umbrage against the judiciary might be read as an attempt to intimidate a vital arm of government.
Nevertheless, as rightly put by the administrator of the National Judicial Institute, Justice Roseline Bozimo (rtd) ‘this country and its citizens expect a diligent and effective administration of justice from the Nigerian judiciary [and it] cannot afford to fail them.’ Clearly this is a job for not only the men and women on the Bench alone but everyone in the polity, including litigants and their lawyers.