Corruption, between Bar and Bench
WHEN the Bar accused the Bench of corruption, and the Bench put the accusation in dispute, the issue cannot simply be wished away. Nigerians need to know what the exact position is, in order to steer the country aright. In retrospect, the Bar’s accusation, as leveled the other day by President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) Augustine Alegeh, can be located in the main between lawyers and judges. What is required, instead of the two arms of the legal profession trading blames, is for genuine cooperation, aimed singularly at restoring the revered position of the judiciary. For in the long run, the judiciary, even now that corruption menace has become widespread and endemic in many sectors, remains the only hope of the common man.
That almost all the sectors of the country are blighted by corruption is a sickening fact that Nigerians do not attempt to dispute. From the political class to public and private businesses, there are noticeable ravages of corruption. President Muhammadu Buhari spoke significantly of this problem when he observed during his inauguration that if corruption was not checked, it would ruin the nation.
Sadly, the developments in the judiciary now do not support any hope that the judiciary is immune to the pervasive corruption. It was therefore highly instructive when Alegeh, at the commencement of the 2015-2016 legal year and the swearing-in of new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), specifically accused some judges of rendering judgments for fees. But the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed insisted on the integrity of judicial officers.
Alegeh’s allegation is not new. The immediate past CJN, Aloma Muktar, had also blamed both the judges and lawyers for encouraging corruption. And before Muktar, the late Justice of the Supreme Court, Kayode Eso, had asserted that the judiciary was polluted by corrupt judges who must be removed to restore credibility to the justice sector. Importantly, the nation’s judiciary and judges used to be highly respected worldwide. The challenge before the Bar and the Bench now is how to collaborate to ensure that corrupt lawyers and judges are removed from the judiciary in order for it to retain its respect as a hallowed institution.
Ridding the judiciary of corruption must necessarily start with rigorous review of their appointment processes so that only those who are eligible not only by professional competence but also by character are allowed to become members of the Bench. Where judges are appointed because they can pay for their positions, justice should not be expected. It is judges who emerge through such a mercantilist system that easily seek other means outside their salaries to recoup the investments they have made to attain their positions. Notably, Alegeh gave a hint that the practice of shrouding appointment processes of judges in secrecy in the past may be fuelling the corrupt system.
Obviously, where the process appointing judges has been deliberately skewed towards undue advantage, those who have their integrity to protect do not show interest in the Bench. There is therefore the need for the appointment to be made transparent so that the Bench can accommodate as many people who are qualified and are interested in it. When the number of judges increases, this would reduce the workload on the existing ones and cases would be handled swiftly. When cases are treated speedily, opportunity for corruption would be minimised.
There should also be a credible process of disciplining erring judges. The existing system whereby judges try their own colleagues who are accused of corruption has not paved the way for transparency and accountability in the sector. The position of late Justice Eso is apposite in this respect, that the National Judicial Council (NJC) be substituted with a Judicial Performance Commission. According to him, there was no way the country could overcome the problems of the judiciary presided over by the CJN where most of the members would be appointed by the CJN himself or herself to sit as judges to discipline their erring colleagues. He wondered what would happen if the CJN was the person accused of corruption.
In the short term, the NBA must demonstrate its commitment to fighting corruption in the judiciary by accepting the challenge of the CJN for lawyers to expose the corrupt judges. Lawyers cannot exonerate themselves, for they are often the conduits for the transmission of corrupt proceeds to the judges. Similarly, judges should accept the CJN’s admonition to be stringent with corruption cases by, for instance refusing frivolous applications that put justice in question. Why would a judge grant a perpetual injunction against the arrest or prosecution of a person who has been accused of corruption, instead of making it possible for the accused to properly defend himself?
In addition, governments should embrace measures, like those taken by Lagos State, to improve the welfare of judges and thus enhance their self-esteem. Such measures would also attract the best judges – in character and professional competence – to the Bench.