For quite a while now, the Nigerian judiciary has repeatedly come under unfavourable scrutiny from the public, especially with regard to deciding electoral issues. This is because many of the judges involved in electoral matters never seem to hide their bias in most of the judgements they pass. Thus, the issue of corruption in the Nigerian judiciary has continued to echo and re-echo.
Last week was a particularly bad one for the judiciary. On the issue of who is the legitimate governor of Abia State, an Appeal Court sitting in Abuja descended on an Abuja High Court judge, Justice OkonAbang, for giving a judgement the Appeal Court says amounted to standing democracy on its head.
The court held that the originating summons issued by Justice Abang, leading to an earlier judgment that removed OkezieIkpeazu, the sitting governor of Abia State and proclaiming his challenger, UcheOgah, as governor, was not properly constituted, and as such, the lower court lacked jurisdiction to hear it.
The court also held that “although the originating summons was later amended, an amended summons has no capacity to cure a defective and incurably bad originating summons being the foundation of the suit.” According to the appellate court, “the law has laid down principles by which a case can be instituted, but on the motion which led to this appeal, three people indicated themselves as lawyers and signed the document, even while the law says only an identifiable legal practitioner can do so.” The court ruled that it was not its business to embark on a voyage of helping a litigant decide who filed his case, and by so doing, the lower court erred in deciding for the litigants.
Furthermore, the appellate court held that “Justice Abang raped democracy in his order that the INEC should issue a certificate of return to Ogah when there was no evidence of forgery or criminality against Ikpeazu.” According to the court, “the judgment of Justice Abang was grossly erroneous because it was based on inadequacy of tax receipt that cannot be visited on the appellant.”
One of the justices of the appellate court, Justice Ogunwumiju, said: “After reading through the judgment several times, I was amazed at how the trial judge arrived at his conclusion of perjury against the appellant when there was no evidence of forgery. To say the least, his findings are ridiculous. “The judge must have sat in his chamber, unilaterally assessed and computed the tax of the appellant and came to the conclusion that he did not pay the required tax.”
Justice Ogunwumiju added: “In another breath, the trial judge spoke from both sides of his mouth when, in one breath, he claimed that he based his findings on supply of false information and, in another breadth, he came to the conclusion that the appellant in this matter committed perjury, even when there was no allegation of forgery and no allegation that he did not pay tax.”
The Appeal Court also held that Justice Abang turned the law upside down in his conclusion that the appellant should bear the burden of proof on the allegation made by Ogah. “With respect, we disagree with him in this conclusion because it is the person that makes an allegation of falsehood that must prove it,” the court said.
“From whatever angle one looks at the judgment of the trial judge, the decision of his court was grossly erroneous. The inadequacies of the tax receipt cannot be visited on Ikpeazu who scored the highest votes in the 2015 governorship election as doing so will amount to a rape of democracy.”
Since that epoch judgement was delivered last week, many Nigerians have been left wondering why the country’s judiciary has continued to attract odium and disrespect to itself in recent times. Whichever way people look at this particular judgement it is just a case of one bad judgement too many.
It is pertinent to note that the judiciary is not just another arm of government. In many ways, it is the conscience of the nation. Based on this ascription alone, to say the judiciary of Nigeria is polluted and tainted by corrupt practices should not come as a surprise to anyone. On May 9, while having a conversation with the Queen at Buckingham Palace at an event to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, David Cameron, the immediate past British Prime Minister, described Nigeria as “fantastically corrupt”. There was outrage because his otherwise private comment was an undiplomatic statement for an intending host on the eve of an international conference on corruption, not because it was false or unfounded. A nation with an unclean conscience can hardly live up to lofty expectations of transparency.
Everybody has a role in the judiciary. There are, of course, the judges who ought to sit as detached umpires in a dispute and as guides in their role as guardians of the law and interpreters of its purposes. The lawyers and legal practitioners generally are considered ‘ministers in the temple of justice’ applying the law appropriately to practical issues and prescribing the correct usage of the provisions of the law in accordance with its purposes which are usually clarified by the judges in accordance with the times.
The legislature as a body plays an important role as well. It makes laws based on perceived practical needs of the nation, often in areas of complexities that demand guidance from experts of good standing. The general public also plays a role as a collection of intending and prospective litigants, saddled with the responsibility of presenting their case and facts truthfully and without malice.
Where any of these identified roles have been compromised, it leads to a rot in the justice system which can spread. As things are in Nigeria today, it is safe to say that all of these roles have been compromised in the Nigerian judiciary. The result is anyone’s guess.
Following the uproar that greeted the Court of Appeal’s stern rebuttal of the decision made by the controversial Justice Abang in the Abia governorship tussle, the light is again focused on the rot in the judiciary. Bearing in mind all the different roles identified above, there is a long and sorry tale of corruption and abuse of court processes to be told about the players in the judiciary, starting from the custodians of the law itself.
Magistrates, judges and the justices of the superior courts have long been tangled in the web of corruption that plagues the judiciary. The National Judicial Council (NJC) has had to review, time after time, the activity of these revered umpires, leading to numerous justified dismissals and suspensions and, of course, some suspicious and convenient ‘removals’ like the Justice Ayo Salami saga that called to question the decision of those calling the judges to question. Some of the past decisions of the NJC have often been criticised for some inherent bias as the body has often been accused of prescribing different punishments for what are obviously similar offences. That is, different strokes for different folks.
Of course, the courts are replete with cases of bias and allegations of outright bribery and corruption against magistrates and judges. In the case of the latter, the allegations are veiled in soft language as lawyers and litigants are reluctant to call a judge incompetent or, worse still, a thief or liar. It should be noted that petitions against judges go beyond allegations of corruption alone; sometimes blatant misapplication of the law is a ground for petition. Whether the perceived misapplication is occasioned by some sort of inducement (financial or otherwise) or by sheer incompetence, is another debate altogether.