Onnoghen’s fight against corruption in the judiciary

Justice Walter Onnoghen. PHOTO: TWITTER/PRESIDENCY

Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Walter Onnoghen could not be more correct to say recently that ‘corruption (in the judiciary) is not limited to bribe-taking but includes the giving of judgments or orders based on any consideration other than legal merit.’

But the problem goes deeper and larger than these. Former CJN Justice Mariam Aloma Mukhtar had, at a different forum, cause to lament what she described as the rising culture of lobbying, favouritism, and ‘godfatherism’ in the Nigerian judiciary. She added that these aberrations in – or more appropriately put, corruption of – due and fair process of selection sacrifice merit had led to a fall in standard, devalued and weakened judicial institutions, bred indiscipline and at the end of the day, negated the principle of justice. Again, the honourable justice could not be more right. Justice to the highest bidder, hasty judgement against the poor, personal inefficiency, slow judicial process, tolerance of unwarranted petitions and injunctions: these and more are the blemishes on the Nigerian judiciary.

In recent times, the integrity of the judiciary has suffered terribly due, on the one hand, to the disreputable acts of some on the Bench – in collusion, it must be added, with some in the Bar. Even one rotten apple can, and does, spoil the bunch. On the other hand, the environment of pervasive corruption engendered and nurtured by the Nigerian political, business, even spiritual elite cannot but infect other areas of national life; and in truth, even the best of judges remains human, susceptible to temptations.

Nevertheless, it is important to say that he or she who sits on The Bench or in the Temple of Justice must accept the exceptionally high standard of probity it demands. The sad consequence of a compromised judicial system is that men and women who, as put by the late justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Anthony Aniagolu, are representatives of the God of justice, should be put in the dock at all for ungodly acts of corruption. The integrity of some have been sufficiently impugned to warrant compulsory retirement or even summary dismissal. Besides individual cases of misconduct, the judiciary has been accused of less that transparent financial accountability. A late 2017 report by the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation observed that N4.8 billion spent between 2012 and 2015 was not properly accounted for. Ghost contracts, non-remittance of taxes, payments made without receipts, undocumented expenditure, and failure to retire cash advances are cited as examples of the manner public funds have been allegedly misused.

At a personal level, Justice Aniagolu posited that, because of their unique calling, role and function, judges will face harsher heavenly judgement than any other professional. Indeed, as far back as in the days of the Babylonian empire, the Code of Hammurabi stipulated that ‘if a judge accepts a bribe to render and seal a decision, then the judge is fined twelve times the settlement ordered in the decision, is expelled from the Bench, and cannot serve as a judge again.’ Before and beyond that however, it is no exaggeration that a nation is doomed on earth that its seat of justice is corrupted; there will be no safety for the lowly on the short run, nor for the high and mighty on the long run. It is therefore in the enlightened self- interest of every citizen to protect the judiciary from the moral ills that ravage this society.

It is reassuring that the loud stain on the integrity of the judicial arm of government is so dispassionately diagnosed not from outside but from within, and at the highest level too. The ability to speak truth to oneself is a mark of courage, of confidence, and, it may be presumed, a deliberate desire for self-improvement. Justice Onnoghen has not merely lamented and analyzed, he has taken the first steps against judicial putrefaction.

At his inauguration, CJN Onnoghen promised the executive arm’ the fullest cooperation of the third arm of government in the continuation of the war against corruption and misconduct in the judiciary.’ He has begun to walk his talk by instituting a wide-ranging 13-point reform that, if faithfully adhered to by his colleagues on the Bench, can literally revolutionize the delivery of judicial service in this country. The reform introduces ‘new modalities for the appointment of judicial officers, tightening judicial discipline regulations ‘, and ‘fashioning out a speedy way to clear backlog of cases , among other [measures].’ A new Rule of Court Procedure provides for the award of punitive cost by the court for frivolous litigation or delays, and an inspectorate arm that ensures judges sit from 9 am to 4 pm every working day. And judges will require the notification and permission of the CJN to travel out of the country. Judges at the lower courts are required to submit for assessment by the Federal Judicial Service Commission, quarterly report of cases handled, while higher courts submit their report to the National Judicial Council. In order to keep incompetent men and women out of the Bench, appointment will be subject to written examination and interview. ‘Through rigorous screening and painstaking appointment procedures…the best materials in terms of learning and character (will) get appointed to the Bench’ said the CJN. Cases of financial corruption are some of the most susceptible to perversion in the land, not the least for the reason that the accused have unbelievably deep pockets that can be deployed to distort the course of justice. To give effect to his anti-corruption stance, the NJC that he chairs has constituted the Corruption and Financial Crimes Cases Trial Monitoring Committee ‘to serve as a check on the excesses of some bad eggs (on the Bench).’

This newspaper has maintained that all said, only judges themselves can restore the somewhat now doubtful honour of the Bench. It bears repeating that if colleagues of the CJN take to heart these reforms, with time, the Nigerian judiciary shall be rid substantially of questionable characters and in turn receive the confidence and the respect it deserves as a matter of course.

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