Sunday, 31 January 2016

SENDING CORRUPT JUDGES TO JAIL

By his statement last week that the present administration has vowed to ensure that corrupt judges face criminal prosecution and forfeiture of assets, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), has fired another salvo at the judiciary. Notwithstanding the many knocks on this arm of government, Malami’s frank and seemingly irreverent warning to an often regarded respectable class of judicial officers is bold and salutary.

Whilst it is a commendable admonition to an esteemed body of professionals being debased by a few unscrupulous elements amongst its fold, the minister’s candid declaration must be matched by action, if it must be taken seriously as is expected of his office.

Reiterating the anti-corruption drive of this administration, Malami was quoted as saying, inter alia: “…in line with the cardinal agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, the office of the Attorney-General of the federation shall ensure that every appearance of corruption in the judiciary is dealt with among other measures through criminal prosecution and forfeiture to the state of illegally acquired assets.”
                 
This harsh comment made in Lagos at the launch of a Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) report titled, “Go home and sin no more: Corrupt Judges Escaping from Justice in Nigeria”, should not surprise anyone. This is because recent events have put the judiciary in odium and disrepute.

Decades ago, the sagely candour and controlled socialisation that venerate judges’ appearances were qualities that spelt probity, impartiality and honour. However, perhaps, fuelled by odious economic and political practices, judges are becoming vulnerable to the promptings of men and women in power. Today, the mystique of power, character and influence, as well as a judge’s sagacious comfiture, have been shattered by obscene familiarity with the casual political and social class. With incidents of leakage of judgments before delivery and ostentatious lifestyles beyond legitimate earning, some judges seem so assiduous in joining the rat-race for base and mundane cravings; all to the desecration of the temple of justice.

In the last one year, there has been some consistent volte face towards ignoble practices of judicial officers. The other day, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, had condemned the emerging incidence of conflicting judgments coming out of the Court of Appeal. Before then, he had, during the inauguration and swearing-in of 242 judges, selected as chairmen and members of the 2015 Election Petition Tribunal, warned judges not to be used as tools to truncate democracy. If the respected public officials of the law were emboldened to be that brash to their professional constituency, it is perhaps because former Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Maryam Aloma Mukhtar, made the first public admission of corruption in this sector of government when she indicted judicial employees including court secretaries, court registrars, process clerks and bailiffs as drivers of the corruption chain in the judiciary.

Whilst reports of these incidents are open to the public, lawyers, like many Nigerian professionals, are the first to defend their kin. Even though they are embarrassed by allegations of impropriety and illicit liaisons affecting their professions, lawyers want their prestige position in the society untainted by public invectives directed at the learned gentlemen and ladies. The public, it seems, has no right to pontificate on moral issues concerning the learned profession! This needless haughtiness and the conspiracy amongst Nigerian professionals to always unwittingly defend or protect themselves must stop.

This is where the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) must come in to save its own reputation. If the growing perception that justice can be bought from a judge is to be diffused, the NBA must begin to show Nigerians that lawyers who aid and abet judicial corruption can be disciplined, irrespective of rank or class. To this end, once the requisite institution has indicted corrupt judges, the NBA should lead the way to ensure that diligent prosecution takes its course.

Nigeria could also take a cue from Ghana, where not too long ago, 20 judges were dismissed for being implicated in a high profile investigation into bribe-taking and other forms of misbehaviour. The judges were dismissed at the instance of a five-member disciplinary committee appointed in October by Ghana’s Chief Justice Georgina Wood, after an embarrassing undercover footage by a local journalist exposed the rot in the judiciary and shocked the nation. Like Ghana, Nigeria should begin to apprehend corrupt elements in the system to use as scapegoats. When a petition is filed about a corrupt judge to the National Judicial Council and then investigation is carried out to ascertain culpability, a sack or dismissal could be recommended.

That this administration has included forfeiture of illegally acquired assets as a penalty is a welcome development. Nigerians must support this, and ensure that this proposal comes to light, if the sanitisation of the judiciary is to be taken seriously. Furthermore, just as the SERAP report has drawn the attention of the public to the atrocious behaviour of judges, there is need for more organisations that people can report to in cases of judicial abuse; organisations that will investigate corrupt judges and cleanse the abuse. From an administrative perspective, the Federal Government may want to consider a re-organisation of the civil service in such a manner that would separate the positions of the Attorney-General and that of the Minister of Justice. This would ensure efficiency and proper monitoring of the bench, and check the activities of the other officers of the judiciary.

The warning of the Attorney-General might seem brash and irreverent, yet it is a fitting reminder of that sacred message of every democratic culture, that no one is above the law. (Guardian)