Shakedown of the Judiciary: Needed Panacea to Nigeria’s Corruption Woes

by Peter Claver Oparah

I will start this report by referencing a statement by the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Muhammadu Uwais on corrupt judges;

“A corrupt judge is more harmful to the society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. The latter can be restrained physically. But a corrupt judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office while still being referred to as honorable.”

justiceA revolution has been started in Nigeria with the arrest of leading judges in a night raid last weekend for corruption. The Department of State Security (DSS) which led that surprising sting operation, said it was following over seven months investigation of corruption cases against judges. Let us recall that earlier in the year, some leading lawyers were arrested and arraigned in various courts for acts of corruption in what is perhaps the biggest shakedown the Nigerian judiciary has faced in its history. For many years, most Nigerians have impotently watched as justice gets priced beyond the reach of the ordinary Nigerian. Many have watched clear cases of perversion of justice with victims left to hug the transformer while the officers in the temple of justice smile home with their gargantuan loots. Many have watched as the judiciary waxes conspiratorially languid in punishing many of the corrupt people that have been hauled before it. Of course, these corrupt people with the support of senior lawyers whose rise in the legal profession is procured mainly from transacting with judges and being awarded cases without any care about the interest of the nation.

It was therefore apt that Nigerians have forlornly called for the sanitisation of the judiciary. The coming of President Buhari rekindled the hope that the burning Nigerian chestnut could be pulled off the fire with a thorough anti corruption war that will aim at the very roots of the decibel. One of such obnoxious roots is the Nigerian judiciary as Nigerians believed that any meaningful fight against corruption must start from the judiciary where grotesque manipulation of justice has ensured the country’s most corrupt seizes the courts and allocates justice to whosoever pleases it. There has been the expressed wish that the judiciary could be shaken down to the roots and only an audacious, bold, courageous action, which only a President Buhari can do, stands to salvage the judiciary from a valley of odium and place it on the strategic pedestal where it leads the country’s quest for probity and accountability.

The night raid which simultaneously targeted some justices of the Federal High Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court all over the country signals the needed cleanser citizens of an unjust, misruled and abused country have yearned for so many years. In the raid, where seven judges of the three levels of the court were arrested witnessed the recovery of a huge cache of money in both local and foreign currencies in the arrested judges’ residences. It was a daring signal that officers at the temple of justice should comport to the same etiquette and moral rectitude other citizens are required to adapt to. It was a wake up call for a judiciary that has played deaf to the loud demand that it must sanitise its inner coves and save itself from a largely self-inflicted atrophy.

The furore that greeted the arrest, with the fuming Nigerian Bar Association and a motley crowd of civil rights groups issuing hasty moratorium condemning the arrest and calling for the release of the judges, has given way to increasing citizens support for the act that will surely ensure that corrupt commercialisation of justice is capped. With the clear explanations given by the DSS, which detailed why and how the sting operation was carried out, a stunned citizenry has been let into how bizarre wheeling and dealing have been imported into the justice system to not only deface what should be a hallowed institution but outrightly commercialise it to pander to the desires of the highest bidder. The unseemly picture of judges shunting in lowly departmental stores and across the border to collect huge bribe money to pervert justice was a shameful indictment the Nigerian judiciary must live with for many years to come. With the rampaging effects of official corruption in Nigeria, it is not difficult to see why and how the judiciary has been shackled and made a conquered vassal of the impudently corrupt political class in Nigeria.

It is not as if the story of judicial corruption in Nigeria is a new tale. It is as old as Nigerian governance but thus far, no government has mustered the will and guts to lay bare the inner coves of the nation’s judiciary and put a leash on the wholesale trading that has rubbished the integrity of the Nigerian judiciary. It was even decipherable from the reaction of the NBA, the NJC and its supporters, that the Judiciary was almost walking away with the impression that its members are above the law but such rude awakening as the DSS swoop will nudge it back to reality that they are Nigerians, prone to the malaise afflicting Nigeria and subject to the treatment for such malaise.

From the DSS account itself, it is easy to preen that the body that should discipline and moderate the indiscretions and nuances of judicial officials, the National Judicial Council (NJC) has been derelict in sanitising an arm of government that had gained widespread notoriety for marketing justice to the highest bidder. Perhaps, the NJC was powerless because it thought that it has separate ethics governing the judiciary that are not subject to the laws of the land. Its approach to dealing with malfeasance in the judiciary is to recommend analgesics for a cancer patient. This laissez-faire approach has rather led to a worsening of the corruption in the judiciary and worsened its perception by the Nigerian public. According to the DSS, the cases of corruption against the arrested judges were reported to the NJC seven months ago but the body had rather issued a slap on the wrist for the judges and allowed the judiciary to sink further into the abyss of corruption. It may be understandable that the NJC does not adjudicate on cases of criminality against judges but it displayed a poor appreciation of the problem by pretending it can but it ended up covering a huge pile of rot in the process.

With the DSS raid however, an elated nation that has impotently rued the increasing criminalization of the temple of justice over the years, heaved a sigh of relief that indeed a Daniel has come to judgment. The poor whose hope for justice has percolated in the face of multi-billion Naira trading for justice must have heaved a sigh of relief that his remedy is nigh. The vision of a judiciary that will not trade justice for sacks of dollars, Euros, Pounds and Naira is a refreshing experience for citizens of a country that have lived for many decades, internalising only corrupt ways of doing things, including procuring justice. Who will not like a system where he will go to court and get justice without trading with an appointed middleman that will name the price for the envisaged justice he hopes to get? Who will be elated going before a judge who has already named the price for the justice he came to seek for? The biggest casualty in this remains the judiciary which must work hard to regain the confidence of Nigerians. Such confidence is needed to secure an egalitarian society where no man is oppressed.

It is noteworthy that such bodies like the NBA, with its own thick layer of wheeler-dealer lawyers and some groups initially wanted to create artificial immunity for the arrested judges. Judges are subject to the same laws they interpret and as such, are not immune from arrest and prosecution for criminal and corrupt acts. They are not above the law and their conduct is not beyond reproach. That they stand in the temple of justice does not give them more privileges than other citizens. Perhaps the NBA realised this late but then, it is heart warming that we have this case to make other judges know that they cannot bestialise the temple of justice and walk away free. For years, we have seen judges and some lawyers live very flattering and opulent lives, not on their salaries or legal earnings but from the proceeds of corruption. In the sequel, the justice system has suffered irreparable harm while the poor citizenry bear the brunt. Sure, there are honest and impeccable judges that try to live straight and honest lives but like in every other sector, the visage of swash-buckling, nouveau-riche judges, obscenely displaying wealth is sure to dampen their morale and serve as demoraliser to their struggle to live true to their callings. Now that the weeds are about to be pulled off, the good seed in the ration’s bench will have tremendous opportunity to flower; to the glory of the country’s judiciary.

As citizens of a country where justice had been cannibalised and sold to the highest bidder, we have a binding duty to support the present effort to cleanse and fumigate the judiciary. Unquantifiable is the gain a corrupt-free judiciary can do to a country’s growth. But then, we still have a duty to urge the present regime to go deeper in this cleansing effort. Many more judges at the federal level are very corrupt and of course, many judges at the state judiciary are as corrupt as their federal counterparts and must be equally probed, taken in and prosecuted. As the Buhari government has shown, there should be no tolerance for sacred cows. The government and its security agencies must beam the searchlights on judges that sat on the various election tribunals. There is a sustained impression that the country’s election tribunals are merely dubious trading points where politicians with burning ambitions, purchase favourable rulings from acquiescing judges which eventually give them power over gargantuan state resources. The DSS or any other security agency must probe judges that have sat at these tribunals if we will achieve our desire for a filth-free judiciary where justice goes to the just.

All said, the DSS raid on allegedly corrupt judges is quite in order. It is a welcome development. It is timely. It is laudable. It serves very exciting notice that our judiciary could be rescued from the pith of decay. It gives hope that the present anti corruption war will go a long way in rescuing the soul of a lost nation. It gives hope for the Nigerian masses not only that all Nigerians are equal but that every Nigerian is answerable to the law. It is a fundamental imperative for placing the country on a sound moral pedestal for a long journey in nation recovery.

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