Chidi Anslem Odinkalu, was born on June 12, 1968. He is a Nigerian human rights activist, lawyer, professor and writer. He was the former Chairman of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission and was recently the senior team manager for the Africa Program of Open Society Justice Initiative. Days ago, he spoke extensively about the rot in the Nigerian judiciary and what can be done about it. Here are excerpts from the interview conducted by Channels television.
How bad is corruption in the Judiciary in view of recent speech by retired Justice Dattijo Muhammad?
When Justice Samson Uwaifo was retiring from the Supreme Court in 2004, that is nearly 20 years ago, he complained that in the 70s and 80s that corruption in the judiciary was confined to the magistrate and that in the 90s it appeared to have climbed up to the High Court and by the time he was retiring he was afraid it has gotten to the appellate level.
He also said people who did not have the intellectual capabilities for success at the legal profession were been appointed to the Judiciary at the High Court and he feared that these inadequate people where going to rise to the cream of the appellate court system in a short time.
In 2011, if you would remember, two stories broke. One was the quarrel between the President of the Court of Appeal and the then Chief Justice. The story was that the then Chief Justice sought to direct the Court of Appeal on how to decide the case relating to the governorship election then in Sokoto State. That ultimately led to the firing of the President of the Court of Appeal. The Chief Justice then retired under a clowd.
In that year, the then Speaker of the House of Representatives was credited in a cable transmitted by the American ambassador then of having told the ambassador that the Supreme Court collected money to decide the appeal in respect of the 2007 presidential election. I am not making this up, all of what I said is in writing.
What the retired Supreme Court Judge Dattijo Muhammad said reflects a trend that was fully documented and the timeline reflected the history of remarks by retiring Justices of the Supreme Court over the last twenty years.
How do we deal with this?
First of all we deal with it by acknowledging it honestly. I do not agree with you that the Nigerian Court today is the last hope of the common man or woman. If you had said the court should be the last hope of the common man, I should agree.
Are things so bad within the bench that we can’t rely on our courts?
Yes they are. I am not going to come here and lie to you. The court should be the last hope of the common man, I would agree with you. Are the Nigerian courts today the last hope of the common man? No sir. We cannot be honest with ourselves if we cannot admit that the Chief Justice appointing his son and swearing him in is a problem. We cannot be honest if we don’t agree that the President of the Court of Appeal sitting in NJC approving the appointment her son-in-law and daughter is a problem.
The best they can do is when these things come up they excuse themselves; because being a Judge is not a family inheritance. Being a Judge is not a sexually transmitted condition, husband don’t inseminate their wife’s with Judgeship. Men don’t inseminate their mistresses with Judgeship in the bedroom.
Is it now an epidemic?
Sorry, we have to be brutal with ourselves this has got too far. Every time I say this I get abused, but I am going to insist and keep saying it, because the stakes are too high. The issues are too important, ordinary people are being ruined by this and we cannot continue to pretend as if we don’t know that this is a problem.
Now, we are hearing it from the Judges themselves. So, I am not the only one saying it anymore. I started saying this over 25 years ago, I disagreed with Justice Egboegbo, I kept bothering him on the issue, until he was retired. But that was the beginning of the problem, now we have an epidemic.
If it has got up to the Supreme Court, you have to acknowledge that if you have a Judiciary in which Judges of the Supreme Court are saying that the Supreme Court itself is a problem then you have a credible problem. Its can no longer be described as the last hope of the common man, we have to address it.
Do we still have good men and women that can serve on the bench today and where can we find them?
There are good men and good women, these good men and women are not confined to the sons, daughters and mistresses of Judges and politicians. That is the problem. Look around today. The sixteen Senior Advocates of Nigeria in Kogi State are asking that appointments to the bench is suspended because the Governor, they alleged wants to make his wife a High Court Judge.
Every senior politician wants the person who is in their bedroom and family member to become a High Court Judge. How do you run a country like that? Honest people don’t even get a chance to be considered.
People who are decent, successful, intelligent no longer have a opportunity to be considered, if they don’t have people from their political class making the appointments that is the problem.
How about unbundling the office of the Supreme Court?
When a retiring Supreme Court Judge say we must unbundle the office of the Chief Justice; we have to take that seriously. The Chief Justice as an institution has become too dangerous for the country. I am not referring to anybody. The office of the Chief Justice has to be unbundled.
What are those commonly perpetuated evil in the bench that we need to expose?
Over the 20 years period from 1999 to 2019, the NJC considered over 1,000 petitions against Judges and the strike rate of success was about 15%, that was decided there was a case and there was cupability of the Judges.
That is a very high strike rate considering that the NJC is very reluctant to discipline Judges. Then let us look at the kind of allegations that was found. In 2005 for example, you have a case in respect of senator Ugochukwu Ubani, concerning Anambra South Senatorial District, where two Justices of the Court of Appeal were found on record by the NJC to have collected money. In that case that we are talking about, one was given N15 million, the other collected N12 million. I can give you their names if you want because there is now public record, I’m not putting it up.
I should also mention here that out of the three Justices in the case, one of them Justice Akas refused to collect money and ruled according to the evidence of the law and became the minority in the case. But do you know the good thing? He got up to the Supreme Court because he refused to be corrupted.
We are not just telling stories of corruption in the courts
Let nobody think I am here to keep telling stories about corrupt people or judiciary officers, we also have examples of incorruptible Judiciary officers. The problem now is that; they are few and far between and they don’t go high enough and we have to fix that.
We have to fix the situation where the only people who are now getting processed to appointments are the sons, daughters, husbands, wives and mistresses of sitting Judges and politicians.
That is the biggest problem, and why is that a problem? Because it is front-loading the corruption. It is no longer buying and selling of court judgement; it is that people are now planting their families in corrupt relationships with the Judiciary system to make sure that down the road you cannot even get any idea of Justice.