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With the recent commotion in the Nigerian judiciary that has swept away some judges, we ask if it is preferable to savour the seeming better times ahead, or lament over the cataclysm that seems to be upsetting the applecart. It appears a majority of Nigerians would embrace the former option, reason being that in the recent past, they had come to believe that justice in Nigeria is for sale to the highest bidder. How did this sacred social commodity meant to be dispensed by specialised and hallowed machinery comprising persons of supposedly high integrity and standing degenerate to a level where such austere commercialisation is now attributed to it?
No other problem has plagued the judiciary more than corruption in general. It is an intractable problem which has overwhelmed every attempted solution so far. The mandatory requirements of judicial integrity, competence and fitness cannot be harvested in piecemeal. These virtues must fully co-exist as one single character package which every judge or magistrate must possess at all times material. Just one corrupt judicial officer is like a malignant tumour, which must be severed from the whole body; otherwise, it will spread and adulterate all other organs of the body.
We are also not losing sight of the consequences of having a bad or corrupt judicial officer on the bench. Such an aberration would obviously lead to massive loss of confidence in the arm of government which serves as sole custodian and interpreter of the law. The people would be forced to engage in primitive self-help measures in settling their disputes, and this would spell chaos and anarchy in immeasurable terms.
After she was sworn in, Her Lordship, Mariam Alooma Mukhtar, Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), had told the media that she would lead by example on the issue, while hoping that other judicial officers would follow suit. We were therefore correct when, in a previous editorial, we preferred to view this response as a metaphor for a strict enforcement of judicial discipline.
It was therefore welcomenews to learn that the NJC under her headship recently recommended the dismissal of Justice Charles Archibong of the Federal High Court and Justice T.D. Naron of the Plateau State Judiciary to President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Jonah Jang, respectively. According to the NJC Report, the recommendation on Justice Archibong was for his unprofessional conduct and wrong application of the law in the case of former Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank Plc, Mr. Erastus Akingbola.
An assessment of the details of the misfeasance can only qualify as the height of judicial impunity, tyranny and rascality.
In the case of Justice Naron, the NJC axed him for engaging in constant and regular voice calls and exchange of MMS and SMS (text messages) with defence counsel, Kunle Kalejaiye, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), while presiding over the election petition trial in Osun State involving former Governor, Olagunsoye Oyinlola and incumbent Rauf Aregbesola.
This again was a blatant breach of the code of ethics of both lawyers and judicial officers, and only perverted justice could emanate from such transaction. It remains to be seen what the Legal Practitioners’ Disciplinary Committee will do to Mr. Kalejaiye. A critical fallout of the foregoing misadventures is the need to take cogent steps to insulate our judiciary from falling prey to such setbacks. The requisite steps must seek to prevent rot from the threshold, rather than cure the malaise, after so much damage would have been done to the system. It’s our fervent belief that this can be achieved if we go back to the pristine mode of appointment and elevation of judges. There’s no gainsaying the fact that the way and manner judges are appointed and elevated today is anything but objective and professional, as the virtues of integrity, competency and standing have been jettisoned for nepotism, cronyism, lopsidedness and ethnicity.
No stone should be left unturned in re-enthroning the old system which recognised and guaranteed only merit, competency and integrity in the appointment of judges, in order to banish mediocrity, clannishness and incompetence to visceral and sentimental exercises where they belong. The famous cliché “garbage in, garbage out” used in computer programming parlance is most instructive here, as appointment of unqualified persons as judges would only accentuate the problem of corruption and misfeasance in the judiciary, as we have presently. A school of thought has questioned why qualified jurists in legal practice and in the academia are no longer appointed judges in the superior courts of record.
While commending the NJC for this effort to restore sanity in the judiciary, lawyers and jurists alike have advised that the NJC must not wait for petitions from the public before swinging into action. It should have the inherent powers to commence investigation on any judicial officer, suo motu.