THE judiciary in Nigeria has been on trial in recent times. Its integrity has been called to question severally not necessarily because it is as guilty on all fronts as accused, but because certain developments within the institution have given the impression that something is fundamentally wrong with both its structure and comportment.
Also, the tardiness of other arms of the criminal justice system has placed a very heavy burden on the judiciary which pushes on it the responsibility of being the last hope for redress. Unfortunately, the inability of the electoral institution in the country to inspire confidence in the electoral process has added a much heavier burden on the judiciary, rendering it the butt of criticisms and the last carrier of the angst of the unsatisfied.
The situation is further compounded by the declining level of appreciation by a multitude of persons in the society whose perception of issues and events is defined more by sentiments and emotions rather than by facts and reality. The cumulative negative factors, including self-inflicted acts by critical actors within the judicial system itself, have given further impetus to the negative image the judiciary is currently wearing.
The judiciary, no doubt, has a critical role to play in the advancement of any society: it interprets the laws of the land, punishes offenders, settles disputes between aggrieved parties, and reviews the activities of the other arms of government. It is the arbiter. It is the last arm of government that stands when other democratic structures are either suspended or dissolved. Therefore, it must be seen to live above reproach
The moment the judiciary is not performing the expected role or is perceived as slacking in performance, and public confidence in the courts becomes suspect, then the judiciary loses its essence. In Nigeria today, and particularly the courts, is gradually walking that inglorious stretch of infamy; and it does not bode well for the society.
There is an urgent need to beat a retreat if the system and society must function properly. Where justice is scarce and hard to get, anarchy dominates and rules. No sustainable growth and development can thrive in that kind of environment. Time was in this country when the courts were like oracles and those who sat in their temples were like deities. It doesn’t seem so any longer. The oracle seems desecrated and the deities demystified. The incessant invasion of the courts by protesters and residences of judges by security agencies are pointers that the mythical nature of the judiciary has been busted.
In those days, court premises were sacred grounds and judges were hardly seen in public. Their abodes were hardly known and they scarcely interacted with members of the public. They were like oracles that sat and made pronouncements and delivered judgments that everybody believed and respected. Today judicial officers are commonplace in social and political circles. The aura has been removed and the awe lost.
The institution seems to have lost its integrity and the judges have become targets of attacks by aggrieved and disgruntled persons and groups, sometimes deservedly. Even ministers in the temple of justice, including lawyers and judges, no longer respect the sanctity of the courts. They desecrate it at the slightest prompting and exhibit very unbecoming dispositions through their actions and pronouncements. They give impetus to those not so well disposed to judicial outcomes to launch scathing attacks on the institution and its superintendents.
Even as we hold that it is time the judiciary reinvents itself and regains the integrity that it has always been known for, it is our position also that in disagreeing with real and perceived shortcomings of the judiciary, we should be mindful not to destroy the institution in the process. The recent resort to attacking the judiciary and its officers by politicians who expected the courts to deliver judgments according to their whims must be condemned and discouraged.
Lawyers, particularly those who have pending matters before the courts, must refrain from media trials and grandstanding outside courtrooms. It is a mark of professional indiscipline for lawyers to engage in such frivolities to the extent of dragging and labelling judges in market squares. The body of legal practitioners must save the profession and associated institutions from the rascality of some of its uncultured members.
The courts must not be allowed to be the playground of opposition politics. Opposition politicians have the statutory right to play politics and express genuine grievances, and to bring their cases to court. Once opportunities are freely allowed for the proper presentation of matters before the courts, the verdicts should be accepted in good faith.
Certainly if, after such verdicts, opposition politicians have solid evidence that judges were bought or compromised unduly, then they should make such evidence public and push for diligent investigation. If, however, they do not have verifiable evidence to place before the public, then they need to backtrack and focus on trying to win the next election.
There will always be winners and losers in a contest, and those who need to contest must utilise the opportunities offered for redress to make their case. Where they fail to do so, the court cannot be held responsible for the eventual outcome as it does not descend into the arena but deliver judgements based on matters presented before it, based on the contemplation and interpretation of existing laws of the land. The judiciary can be called out when necessary, but not because of some perceived entitlements. Court rulings are not delivered and should never be based on assumed public opinion.
The courts would do well to regain the confidence of the people by being seen to do the right things and in good time. It would be necessary to point out here that although some of the brickbats thrown at the judiciary, particularly by the politicians, cannot altogether be said to be in good faith, the judiciary cannot be entirely absolved of blame. Some fundamental shortcomings within its ranks must be addressed urgently if it has to regain the trust and confidence of the people, particularly those who come before the courts at all levels.
To start with, those who sit in the temple of justice must be above board. Integrity and sound knowledge of the law should be the immediate and fundamental yardsticks for consideration. Dispensation of justice must not be left in the hands of unconscionable entities. The structures and composition of the courts must be such that would deliver justice timeously. Justice delayed is justice denied. Those who soil the temple of justice must not only be removed but shamed, to act as a deterrent.
In this regard, responsibility must be placed on the National Judicial Council (NJC) to take a greater role in fighting for its own independence and probity. This can be achieved by (1) beefing up its own internal integrity processes that weed out corruption, (2) paying judges comfortable salaries adjusted for inflation, and (3) increasing the transparency of these processes to prove to Nigerians that judicial integrity is being restored.
This means that the National Assembly must provide ample funds for the NJC and the judiciary, and that the NJC must have the ability to control those funds – and account for them – without interference from the president and governors. Lastly, the Nigerian Bar Association must recover some of its old feistiness and be more aggressive in bringing judicial corruption to book on the one hand while hounding the executive and legislative branches to improve judicial independence on the other.
Although geographical spread in appointments might serve to give a sense of equity and inclusiveness, we do not believe it should necessarily be the criteria for appointing justices of the Supreme Court. Retired Justice Muhammad Dattijo during his valedictory session had pointed out what he termed the lopsided composition of the court because some regions of the country were not represented. He described the situation as irregular.
However, being the apex court of the land and the last judicial bus stop in the country, we believe that sitting over cases at that level should be by the best and brightest of available ranking judicial officers, not by regional representation. Justice served on the temple of region and religion might not be justice properly served.
Everything must be done to preserve the sanctity of the courts and the integrity of the judiciary. Other parties in the electoral process and the criminal justice system must discharge their responsibilities creditably, but the judiciary must defend its classification and remain the last hope of the aggrieved or offended. It must be glaringly seen to be discharging that responsibility without fear or favour, affection or ill-will. Litigants who fail to discharge their burden of proof before the courts and those who have been found genuinely guilty of infractions should be sober enough to accept their fate and move on instead of trying to pull down the judicial edifice in the process.
There is an urgent need, therefore, for the judiciary to live up to its constitutional requirements, to discharge its constitutional duties in a way that justice is not just done but also seen to have done – fair, free and consistent – in accordance with the law. Once this is applied, the aggrieved can grieve, but there will be no faulting the legal decision. The sanctity of the courts must be preserved at all times.