| By Dan Agbese |
PRESIDENT Muhammadu Buhari confessed last week that the judiciary had become his major headache in his anti-corruption battle. Shocking. He made his confession at a town hall meeting with Nigerians in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. He spoke from the heart. A simple confession suffused with controlled anger and disappointment. He now knows he is not just warring against thieves but also against those whose personal ends are served by the status and are naturally inclined to resist change.
The president was restrained in his choice of words. He faces a much bigger problem than headache here. A headache is curable with simple APC tablets (no pun here). He is shocked that the Nigerian judiciary, in this national climate of change, has not quite woken up to its own vital role in the president’s determination to sanitize and clean up the society. The simple explanation is that the hands of justice are soiled in the temple of justice.
I saw it coming. So, let me crow a little. In a column I wrote for Blueprint newspaper last year, titled Buhari and the Augean Stable, I made the following points: “The judiciary should be Buhari’s most trusted partner in the anti-corruption war. Sadly, this institution has a scrappy record in rising up to the challenges of serving God, not Mammon. Our peculiar attitude to the dispensation of justice has saddled us with a peculiar judiciary in which cases go on for ever. The crooks and their crooked lawyers and equally crooked judges tie them down.
“No one can pretend to be aware of the corruption in the temple of justice. In all generalisations, the good and the ugly are lumped together. There are decent judges and decent lawyers who are truly committed to their sacred duty of making the temple of justice the true temple of justice. They resist the temptation to soil their hands. But by and large, the bulwark against tyranny and the refuge of the common man has become a hollow institution suffocating the common man and protecting the smart crooks and criminals.”
People who go to the temple of justice in search of justice too often have the doors of justice shut in their faces by an institution that has progressively lost its soul and its sense of public service. President Buhari is no stranger to the strange and the destructive ways of the nation’s judiciary. He has had a pretty bad experience with it in his quest for justice. Three times he contested the presidential election. Three times he felt cheated by the system. Three times he cried to the temple of justice from the presidential election tribunal all the way to the Supreme Court of Nigeria. The Supreme Court has the last word on all matters of litigation.
The first time, 2003, took Buhari 13 months; the second time took him nearly 20 months and the third time took him nine months. The final verdict in each case from the Supreme Court of Nigeria was consistent with the attitude of the judiciary as an institution, to wit, the end of justice is not necessarily served by a strict interpretation of the law but also by the demands of politics. Justice was delayed in each case. And, as far as Buhari was concerned, denied. I can think of no other African country where cases are dragged interminably through the courts. When our country, arguably the most sophisticated on the continent, fails to lead when it should lead, it denies us the right to take pride in our citizenship.
Buhari cannot afford to treat the judiciary like a sacred cow. I think the president now appreciate Its capacity to sabotage his anti-graft war. It is not funny. Buhari recognised the problem in the judiciary before he took office in May last year. In his inaugural speech, Buhari said: “The judicial system needs reform to cleanse itself from its immediate past. The country now expects the judiciary to act with dispatch on all cases, especially corruption, serious financial crimes or abuse of office.”
Can Buhari leave it to the judiciary to cleanse and reposition itself to “act with dispatch on all cases”? Negative. The problems facing the judiciary are too complex and too critical to be left in the hands of this important institution to deal with on its own. The judiciary cannot reform itself without some help from the executive branch of government. Whatever reforms are contemplated must follow a massive shake up or purge of the system.
I believe we are in some luck. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr Justice Mahmud Mohammed, is, if you would pardon a hackneyed phrase, on the same page with the president here. He is not happy with what is happening in the judiciary or the laws that the judges are called upon to interpret. The country’s most outspoken chief justice so far has been speaking about corruption in the system and the inept prosecution of cases by the anti-graft bodies. I have not heard anyone challenge his view that the anti-graft bodies are uniformly inept in their prosecution of cases because they choose, against all legal wisdom, make their prosecution of cases investigation-based, not evidence-based. In desperation, they go on a fishing expedition by criminalising, in the case of former government, whatever contracts they awarded while in office. If you throw in crooked lawyers, some of whom carry Ghana-must-go bags full of cash to the crooked judges, into the mix, you have a judiciary whose hands are tied by its own perfidy. Such a judiciary cannot serve the ends of justice because it too has become a complicated problem in the dispensation of justice. Its urgent reform cries to the heavens.
Mr. Justice Mohammed has minced no words about the fact that the judiciary is not living up to its billing as the temple of justice. He said recently: “There is need for an overhaul of the Nigerian judicial system in order to render it fit for the 21st century circumstances; there is need to ensure that justice is quick and inexpensive. Litigation has become slow, costly and highly inflating, especially given their complexity, endless interlocutory applications and potential for acrimony.”
No one could put it more strongly or more aptly than that. Both the president and the chief justice have agreed on the need to clean up the judiciary. So, what is stopping them?
In my Blueprint column I quoted at length earlier, I noted there was need “to shake up the judiciary to bring it up to speed with contemporary societal demands for justice. The vice-president, Professor Osinbajo, a great law scholar and law administrator, should be given this important task. A true shake up in the judiciary would rid it of, at least for some time, some of the vermin on the bench who deliver judgements that virtually make first year law students weep.”
The bench is full of men who have no business being there, pretending to be dispensing justice according to the laws of the land. They are only selling justice to the highest bidder because their primary objective on the bench is to make money through means crooked and corrupt. These men will sabotage the anti-graft war and laugh all the way to the banks if Buhari fail to initiate the reform process necessary to make the judiciary serve the ends of justice, not of Mammon.
The lawyers know these crooked men on the bench. Their fellow judges know them too. If you handcuff one or two of such patently crooked judges, it would send the right signal that the anti-graft war is no respecter of judges’ robes. Buhari should regard the reformation of the judiciary as an important aspect of his anti-graft war. If he cleans up the judiciary and puts it right, he would have a strong partner in the anti-graft war. If he does not, I am afraid the crooks will escape the long arms of justice and laugh in his face. As I pointed out in this column not long ago, if we lose the anti-graft war this time, corruption would be fully entitled to a red carpet welcome.
Bell the cat now, Mr. President.
— Feb 8, 2016 @ 13:35 GMT