Judiciary: An institution under siege
In my write-up welcoming Hon. Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar to the office as the first female Chief Justice of Nigeria published in July, 2012 under the caption: “Aloma Mukhtar: Making of Female Chief Justice”, I made the following submission: “There is no doubt that Hon. Justice Mukhtar is assuming the leadership at the time judiciary is at crossroad .The confidence of common man in the judicial system is being eroded. The judiciary is being plagued by incessant accusations of corruption. Since it has been generally accepted that the judiciary has been corrupted, one of the great battles to be fought by the Chief Justice is to tackle this menace of corruption in the judiciary. Also the issue of Justice Ayo Salami, the president of the Court of Appeal must be quickly resolved. Everybody including jurists, lawyers, professors, paramount rulers and people from all works of life have spoken and called for the reinstatement of the man but the presidency is not listening to the wise counseling but insisting or relying on the court and sub judice theory the same theory that was actually violated by the then CJN and the presidency when the man was suspended. Must an upright and fearless judge be punished for his refusal to compromise his judicial oath of office? If those at the helm of affairs insist that it is the court that must resolve Justice Salami’s reinstatement then let the case be given accelerated hearing and be heard from day to day for justice to be done fairly and speedily because if the present situation is allowed to persist till 15th October 2013 when the man will be 70 years and due for retirement from the Court of Appeal, then those in power must have succeeded in sending wrong signal that the Nigerian judicial bench is no longer for the fearless, upright, courageous and incorruptible judicial officers who will not be ready to compromise their judicial oaths of office.”
The red cards given to Justices Achibong and Naron of the Federal High Court and Plateau State High court respectively is an indication that the National Judicial Council (NJC) has once again beginning to live up to expectation and its responsibilities. The judiciary has long allowed itself to be infiltrated by judicial officers whose negative behaviors have greatly undermined the judicial system. This ugly situation cannot be divorced from the fact the appointments of judicial officers these days is not strictly on merit rather it is a question of man knows man which is more the reason why arrogance, poor attitude to duty and gross indiscipline have become order of the day among judicial officers many of who do not have the seal for the work but are only there for the sake of the prestige and benefits attached to the position. Also the undue interference by politicians as apparently done during the reign of Justice Kastina Alu as the Chief Justice of the federation and chairman of the National Judicial Council (NJC) has become a stigma from which the judiciary is trying very hard to purge itself of. Although the drastic step taken by the National Judicial Council (NJC) under the leadership of Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar against Justices Achibong and Naron has received wide commendations but one important thing that still continue to be ignored is the reinstatement of Justice Ayo Salami as the president of the Court of Appeal because if some judges were being sacked for compromising their judicial oaths office, then what happen to judges who are being victimized for failure to compromise their own judicial oaths of office as in the case of Justice Salami who has been placed under unconstitutional suspension. Although post Kastina Alu National Judicial Council (NJC) has made several attempts to reinstate Salami but the Presidency in Aso Rock that is acting the script of People Democratic Party (PDP) has continued to play politics with the reinstatement. If one may ask, does the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria allow for the continuous suspension of a head of a court such as Court of Appeal whose security of tenure is protected by the same constitution without just cause? Is judiciary as an institution not under siege?
It is the judiciary that can liberate itself from the unnecessary siege imposed on it to by the executive arm of government. The earlier the judiciary liberate itself the better. When the politicians in Kwara State hijacked and exploited the dispute between the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Ilorin Branch and the former Chief Judge of the State in person of Justice Raliat Elelu-Habeeb during her reign and the then Governor Saraki proceeded to address the House of Assembly and removed her as Chief Judge of the state, the woman did not hesitate, she went to the Federal High Court to challenge her removal which order she got. The state being represented by its Attorney-General being dissatisfied with the order of reinstatement, appealed to the Court of Appeal which said in its judgment that the woman had gone to the wrong court. Justice Elelu-Habib was also dissatisfied and proceeded to the last bus stop which is the Supreme Court that finally came to her rescue that her removal as the Chief Judge of Kwara State was wrongful and order her immediately reinstatement. To cut the long story short despite the fact that some people were not comfortable and happy with the judgment of the Supreme Court, the order of the apex court had to be complied with and thus the woman was reinstated and eventually retired as the Chief Judge of Kwara State. If the woman judge had gone to sleep snoring over her right by accepting her illegal removal, the politicians who schemed her removal would have had the last laugh but it was the woman through her struggled that carried the day and laughed best. The lesson to be learnt in from this scenario is that whenever any illegality is brought to the attention of the court of law for adjudication by any aggrieved person, the court of law owes it a duty to immediately address such issue place before it without allowing any of the parties before it to use the court to perpetrate injustice or frustrate the other party, for if such is allowed by the court, such court will not be in position to proclaim itself as impartial arbiter in the eyes of the reasonable men and the general public at large.
With Justice Salami’s situation, one continues to wonder how long does it take court to simply determine the issue of whether his suspension was right or wrong if Aso Rock and the PDP on voyage of vendetta had not concluded that the man would not be reinstated even if the court holds otherwise. If those judges and lawyers involved in the handling of the cases are truly committed to the cause of justice devoid of unnecessary delay and technicalities, must we wait till eternity for the Salami’s case to be finally determined and disposed by the court of law? One is strongly of the view that if lawyers before the court are trying to play hide and seek game in any particular case with the aim of delaying or buying time unnecessarily, a fearless and serious minded judge surely knows how to put a check to such delay tactic, even at the appellate court to ensure speedy determination of such case within a very short time. With the way Salami’s issue is being handled and coupled with the attitude of those at the seat of power at Aso Rock one is doubtful if the power that be is ready to reinstate Justice Salami as the president of the Court of Appeal within the few months that is left for the man to attain the age of 70. From all indications the National Judicial Council (NJC) itself seems to be afraid to bell the cat by recalling one of its own who was justly suspended through an intrigue hatched within. I dare say that the Sokoto election petition that brought about the entire crisis and the undue interference of the then Chief Justice of the Federation in person of Justice Katsina Alu would continue to generate hot debate and argument particularly among lawyers whenever the issue arises as to propriety of such interference whether by the Supreme Court or its head as at the time it was done. I in particular belong to the school of thought that disagrees with the decision of majority in the Supreme Court judgment of 4th June 2010 reported as Dingyadi Vs INEC (2010) 4-7 SC Part I. This is an issue for another day as what we are presently concerned here with is the issue of whether the judiciary as an institution should allow itself to be unnecessarily besieged by politicians to prosecute their hidden agenda. The reality on the ground is that it is high time the judiciary as an institution begins to fearless reassert its independence and waving off any undue interference or influence from any quarter particularly from the other arms of government as well as the politicians because to do otherwise will be inimical to the image and integrity of the institution as the last hope of the common man.
The fall of Justices Achibong and Naron from the judicial bench ought to be a great lesson for those black sheep in the system, but since we unfortunately live in a society where people refuse to learn from history, those judicial black sheep may take the fall with pitch of salt and dismiss same with wave of hands and continue to perpetrate the unholy acts on the bench until they fall victims of their own misdeed. Those judicial officials that perpetrate every act of indiscipline on the bench including collecting bribe to approve bail, pervert the cause of justice or compromise their judicial oaths of office are usually not alone in the very act. Therefore the searchlight should not only be focused on the bench rather it should be extended to the Court Registry and the Bar. The high level of indiscipline and corruption in court registries generally these days is so unimaginable that one often wonders that those who are employed and paid from the public purse to render necessary services to the patrons of the court behave most time as if they are toll collectors, wherein the patrons of court having paid the necessary official fees would still be made to pay unofficial fees that would even be more than the official fees to the extent that the court processes of court patrons who are not willing to play ball may not receive necessary attention from the court registry. God save Nigerian judiciary!