It is not uncommon to see many address the judicial arm of government as the last hope of the common man. Perhaps, it could be because it guarantees, or so it seems, equal access to justice and equity, to everyone that approaches its supposedly hallowed temple.
The world over, an independent judiciary is regarded as a sine qua non for a functional democracy. In fact, its centrality to social harmony and good governance in any given democratic society is widely documented. This explains why advocates of good governance, for instance, stress that if the rule of law must be guaranteed in a democratic society, the funding of the judiciary must, necessarily, be removed from the control of the executive so that its officials would not be unduly influenced or hamstrung in the discharge of their statutory responsibilities.
Hence, it is taken for granted that in a society buffeted by corruption such as ours, a courageous, independent, unbiased and financially autonomous judiciary is a most needed bulwark against the continued reign of the monster of corruption and graft in the country. An indispensable tool in any meaningful anti-graft war!
Nigeria, sadly, has not been particularly fortunate in its drive to evolve a functional democratic governance since 1999, which could deliver the oft-mentioned but elusive dividends to the people, principally because of the unspeakable greed of its political class, and the attendant impunity accentuated by a seemingly compromised and disabled judiciary. The effects are everywhere for anyone to see.
The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), for instance, in its 2008 Report on the country, affirmed that “There is virtual agreement among observers that corruption-political, economic-primarily explains poverty in Nigeria”, which at the last count grips about 70 per cent of the population, noting that “it (corruption) has held back economic growth and development, and frustrated incentives to align budgetary allocations with development priorities.”
And, as Michael Johnston, author of Syndromes of Corruption, noted in his recent article, “Poverty and Corruption”, in America’s Forbes magazine, “the links between corruption and poverty affect both individuals and businesses, and they run in both directions: poverty invites corruption, while corruption deepens poverty”
Interestingly, as said earlier, the general expectation has, always, been that the judiciary should function in such a manner as to mitigate, if not eliminate, this depressing corruption-poverty conundrum in the country. Unfortunately, this is becoming one huge forlorn hope. And, as they say, “if the foundation be destroyed, what shall the righteous do?”
Indeed, what shall a country with a corrupt judiciary do? This remains one poser that has agitated many. That the foundation of justice, or better still, temple of justice, in Nigeria is being irretrievably destroyed by corruption, to the concern of many, was brought to the fore recently when the report of a survey on crime and corruption in the country, conducted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and National Bureau of Statistics with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, was released.
The survey shocked not a few with its disclosure that “Nigerian courts of law receive the biggest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant”, though it also indicated, for effect, that “among public officials, police personnel were most frequently alleged by respondents (58 per cent) to request the payment of bribes followed by employees of PHCN and the Water Board (39 per cent), Revenue officials (26 per cent ) as well as Customs (25 per cent).”
The executive summary of the survey particularly stressed that “though bribery in the judiciary was less frequent than in many other agencies, it required the biggest transactions.” Respondents to the survey conducted in 2007, on a sample of 2,775 enterprises randomly selected to represent businesses active in the country, and a response rate of 79.4 per cent representing 2,203 interviews recorded, said they have paid the biggest bribes to the courts, an average of $87 (N13,050) per transaction.
It speaks volumes that, as the survey claimed, “Somewhat smaller amounts were indicated for Customs clearance, clearance of environment/health regulations, residence and work permits, registrations and police investigations (median bribe around $80)
To keen watchers of events in the Nigerian polity in recent times, this damning report on the judiciary is not entirely a novel one. Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Kayode Eso, had at a public function in Lagos last June, lamented that endemic corruption in the judiciary, if left unchecked, could sound the death knell for justice administration and delivery in the country with dire consequences for its democratic governance.
As he put it, what was happening in the election petitions tribunals, involving judges across the country, was mind-shattering because many of the judges “are not just millionaires as we were told but billionaires.”
Amazingly, this view was echoed months earlier by Maj.Gen. Ishola Williams (rtd.), Chairman of Transparency International (TI) in Nigeria, who claimed that election tribunals were becoming goldmines for Nigerian judges. He put it this way: “All the judges are just using the election tribunals to make money. All those who had gone through election tribunals are millionaires today. I challenge any one of them to say no!”
Williams’ open challenge was not known to have been taken by anyone since then, leading many to conclude, inexorably, that the temple of justice in Nigeria is being compromised and corrupted to serve the interest of the rich and privileged few.
Giving further insights into how corruption has dented the judiciary, Chief Afe Babalola (SAN), chairman, Chartered Institute of Arbitrators of Nigeria, regretted that: “Time was when a lawyer could predict the likely outcome of a case because of the facts, the law and the brilliance of the lawyers that handled the case. Today, things have changed and nobody can be sure. Nowadays, politicians would text the outcome of the judgement to their party men before the judgement is delivered and prepare for their supporters ahead of time for celebration.”
One of the side effects of a corrupt judiciary is that it becomes inevitably too weak and increasingly incapable of discharging its critical responsibilities to the society, especially to the poor and vulnerable. Incidentally, this is one of the indicators of a “failed state”, according to the Failed States Index.
It is instructive that the UNODC survey reveals that “for more than 70 per cent of Nigerian businesses, crime and corruption constitutes the most serious to conducting business” in the country. Now, with a corrupt judiciary to boot, it means things have fallen apart with the centre no longer sure of holding itself.
No doubt, something drastic needs to be done to cleanse the judiciary of the stench of corruption given its central place in the society. And, this should necessarily concern everyone. But, can this be accomplished with a Nigerian Judicial Council that appears overwhelmed? That it appears incapable of repositioning the judiciary in the midst of these noisome revelations of corruption trailing it is most depressing.
Perhaps, Justice Eso’s call for the establishment of a distinct body to handle graft in the judiciary might suffice given the seeming helplessness of the NJC. According to him, the proposed Judicial Performance Commission, comprising retired judges, will be vested with the powers to receive complaints
in respect of judicial officials in Nigeria and deal adequately as well as oversee disciplinary matters pertaining to judicial officials, notably magistrates and judges.
Whichever way, the judiciary should be cleansed of every rot and filth, and fast too, if the rapid descent of the country into a state of nature, where might is right and justice goes to the highest bidder, would be stopped. Besides, if it would continue to be relied upon to perform its redemptive role in our democracy, it must first remove the long beam of corruption stuck in its eyes, so it can behold and remove the mote in others’ eyes. A corrupt judiciary is every nation’s worst plague.