Time to rein in corrupt judges – Punch

By The Citizen

Last month, three separate but interrelated incidents again exposed the ignoble depth into which the Nigerian judiciary has sunk. While the temple of justice has been awash with delays, stink of corruption and sale of justice to the highest bidder for some time now, the new incidents represent an unimaginably new low. Things must change for the better because the cases - in Abia, Lagos and the Gambia - bring home the need for the judicial authorities, especially the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar, to fast-track a comprehensive purge of the third arm of government.

The first of these odious cases is the alleged age falsification by the Abia State Acting Chief Judge, Shadrach Nwanosike, which has prompted a recommendation for his retirement by the National Judicial Council. The NJC took the decision because the alleged falsification 'invariably affected his retirement age.' It is a serious matter that those the society relies on for justice are themselves tainted by (age) cheating. How can a cheating law officer be an impartial arbiter at the temple of justice? As lawyers themselves say, he who comes into equity must come with clean hands.

Also, a Nigerian judge serving in the Gambia, Joseph Wowo, was allegedly sacked after he was linked with a bribery case over a land matter before him. He was replaced by a Ghanaian judge. This case points directly to the rot in the judiciary at home. The sacked judge has besmeared the hard-earned reputation of his colleagues, who had been dutifully representing Nigeria in the Gambia. Although the NJC has disowned the affected judge, this should not stop the body from ordering a fully-fledged investigation and meting out a heavy sanction to him if he is found wanting. This will serve as a deterrent to law officers who are wont to export the infamy at home abroad.

In what has become a sickening reference, the justice system was reduced to odium when a Federal High Court granted a perpetual injunction restraining the Inspector-General of Police, the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission from prosecuting a businessman over an alleged petroleum subsidy fraud. Nigeria is about the only country in the world where the law is so abused in the granting of perpetual immunity from prosecution. Previously, a High Court in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, presided over by Ibrahim Buba, had in 2009 granted the former governor Peter Odili a perpetual injunction, restraining the EFCC and other law enforcement agencies from prosecuting him. The anti-graft agency challenged the ruling but lost. Its appeal on the case has yet to be determined.

However, no efforts should be spared in reforming Nigeria's justice system. The CJN has to step up on her efforts within the little time she has as Nigeria's topmost judicial law officer. The image and reputation of the Nigerian judiciary is at its lowest ebb. As has been suggested by stakeholders, Mukhtar should radicalise the NJC by allowing ordinary Nigerians to contribute to the appointment of judges. This is how it is done in some states in the United States. This will eliminate the self-imposed restriction of the NJC acting only on petitions, which is currently hindering the body from moving against corrupt judges polluting the system.

Corrupt judges are a threat to our democracy; they should not be allowed to smear the polity further. Many cases in our recent past dictate strongly that the judiciary might soon bring the system to ruination if unchecked. James Ibori, the Delta State governor between 1999 and 2007, was freed of corruption charges levelled against him by the EFCC, in spite of overwhelming evidence. The same man was sentenced to a 13-year prison term by a British court for the same offences. Curiously, John Yusuf, a convicted pension fund thief, who was linked with stealing over N23 billion of impoverished pensioners funds, was fined only N750,000 by an Abuja court. As it is often said, the judiciary is the last hope of those seeking legal redress. At the moment, this is not so in Nigeria. But with a proper reform and political will, success can be achieved, thus restoring the confidence of the populace.

While punishment must be handed down to judges identified to be tainted, the political class has the duty of not polluting the judiciary so that it can be a fair arbiter in every case. The NJC should also institute a rigorous system in the appointment of fresh officers to the bench.