The judiciary is seriously troubled. Everyone, including its members, knows it. It isn’t supposed to be so, given the calibre of the individuals of the old bloc who gave all they had to build a legal institution comparable to the best anywhere in the world. The decadence we see is not peculiar with the bench only, it is found also within the bar. It is not an ailment that only afflicts the prosecution, it sickens the defence also. Deceased legal luminaries will turn in their graves; and those alive will be weeping for what the justice system has become.
The infractions allegedly committed by Abubakar Talba, Thomas Naron, and Charles Archibong have plagued the judiciary for a long time. They have long been among what many Nigerians have observed and complained about, but which no one in authority really appeared to care about. They are the infringements that have turned the courtrooms into a market place where justice is the sole ware and it is openly displayed and sold to the highest bidders. The absence of judicial prudence aided by widespread corruption in the polity set the stage for a bull market that seems to enrich the judges beyond anyone’s imagination.
These three gentlemen may have been amongst the best and brightest in their profession, considering the exalted positions they occupied, but they seem to have allowed greed to take control of them. In doing so, they may have interpreted justice, not in the context of what the statutes, evidence and logic defined, but in terms of any technicality that they can find to pervert justice.
So it seemed in the case against Yakubu Yusufu who was given a two-year prison sentence each on a three-count charge with an option of N250,000 fine on each charge. Yusufu pleaded guilty to stealing N2 billion, although the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) had accused him of embezzling N33 billion.
It also appeared so in the ruling at the election petition tribunal on the Osun State 2007 gubernatorial election, where the judges ruled in favour of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, former Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola. Oyinlola was later declared the loser of that election by the Court of Appeal and replaced with the real winner, Rauf Aregbesola.
And finally, it was so in a dubious judgment delivered in the case of a disgraced banker, Erastus Akingbola.
These judgments are not the first to appear doubtful in the eyes of Nigerians. There have been several in the past involving many high-flying defendants. Many of them who should be serving long prison terms are walking the streets of our cities, enjoying either their loots or new positions fraudulently secured.
It is not that anyone expects the corruption in the judiciary to disappear because Talba, Naron and Archibong have been implicated, but it will signal that it is no longer business as usual. The decision of the National Judicial Council (NJC), presided over by the chief justice of Nigeria (CJN), Mariam Mukhtar, to recommend the immediate and compulsory retirement of these controversial judges, in my mind, suggests the beginning of a new era. The backing it received and the subsequent approval President Goodluck Jonathan gave to immediately retire Justice Charles Archibong is perhaps a sign that the president may have now woken up fully to his responsibility to fight corruption anywhere it exists.
There is no better place to begin the fight than in the hallway of the justice system. In the words of the attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, Mohammed Adoke, “It is Mr. President’s belief that once we are able to cleanse the judiciary of corruption, then our fight against corruption in its entirety will take a firm root and will be on its way to success.” This is so true, honourable minister, provided there are no sacred cows along that way.
Obviously, the CJN and her colleagues, acting on behalf of the National Judicial Council, have acted very boldly in the interest of the judiciary and Nigeria. History incidentally is replete with courageous leaders who, at a risk to their career and/or personal safety and comfort, help to bring down powerful interests whose actions seek to undermine national progress. Mariam Mukhtar seems to fit that profile. She can become the conscience of the justice system. All that she needs is the unwavering support of all those that matter – the support of the president, the attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, her colleagues on the bench, and the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA).
Nigeria’s judiciary can still regain the confidence and trust of Nigerians and become a shining beacon to show the way to other African nations. To be able to do this, those amongst the flock of the CJN who pervert justice must be removed. And prosecuted, where necessary, not just dismissed or retired. They are muck, which the chief justice needs to rake and dump in the refuse bin of history.
EGHE ISIAKA GUOBADIA
Guobadia, economist, banker, who was special assistant to former finance minister Chu Okongwu, now works in New York.
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