Following the sack of Justice Walter Onnoghen as Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) in 2019 and particularly in the twilight of the first term of the outgoing administration, under circumstances that are still befuddling to the uninitiated, the judiciary started convulsing. And it appears to have remained in the sick bay thereafter, hence the sudden resignation on Sunday, 26th June 26, of Justice Tanko Muhammad who had replaced Onnoghen as CJN since 2019.
Following Muhammad’s resignation, President Muhammadu Buhari had on Monday, June 27, sworn in Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, as the new CJN.
So effectively, there is a new guard who is now charged with literally cleaning the Augean stable.
But the fiasco in the apex court did not just happen. Rather, it was long in coming.
In his first public statement after his ouster, the former CJN, Onnoghen said the following during a book launch in 2021: “Prior to my suspension, I was confronted with no allegation. There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. As I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life.
“As if that was not enough, I was also accused of setting free high-profile criminals, whereas I ceased to be a High Court judge as far back as 1978.
“In Supreme Court, I did not sit alone. We sat in panel. In all these rumours and outright accusations, I was not given opportunity to defend myself.
“Let me make it clear that the office of the CJN was not for Onnoghen but for all Nigerians who had sworn to guide and protect the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
“To say the least, the period of my ordeal was the darkest era in the history of the Nigerian judiciary.”
Perhaps, as a fall out of the cold treatment meted to ex CJN, the Supreme Court which is the apex judiciary institution in our country, appears to have been stricken by a debilitating disease that is manifesting the symptoms of cancer.
And it might as well be a cancerous infection as being suspected because that strange disease that infected the system since 2019 seem not to be responding to treatment, positively.
Instead, the infirmity which by all intents and purposes is self-inflicted, appears to have metastasised. Hence it has not only degenerated into an open revolt of 14 justices against then CJN, Muhammad via a petition letter written to him and leaked to the public about the deplorable welfare condition of the senior members of the judiciary who are supposed to be crème de la crème and thus entitled to premium privileges, instead they are getting a raw deal via denial of most of the perks and appurtenances of which they are entitled.
It is not only in the dirty internal fight which has spilled into streets that the rot in the judiciary is manifesting. But the toxic state of affairs in the third arm of government had also taken a dramatic turn in the literary and common sense of the word.
While the dust was yet to settle on the blithe created by the spat between the justices in the apex court, a parody of the recent Supreme Court judgment legalising the wearing of hijab by Muslims in schools and as they deem fit, a human rights lawyer, Malcom Omoirhobo whose religious faith is African traditional worship appeared in the hallowed chambers of the apex court decked out in Oluokun worshippers’ attire akin to a native doctor’s costume.
It is needless stating that turning up in court in such an outlandish outfit did not only cause a stir, but it was a powerful unspoken statement against the mixing up of religion and politics which the Supreme Court has via the ruling put its imprimatur on, wittingly or unwittingly.
In justification of the protesting lawyer’s action, he made the assertion below: “I am very grateful to the Supreme Court. Just last week Friday, they made a very resounding decision that promotes Section 38 of the Constitution. That is our right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.
“That we are free to express our way of worship in our schools and in our courts. That decision was reached on Friday and that has encouraged me.
“Because I am a traditionalist and this is the way I worship. Based on the decision of the Supreme Court, this is how I will be dressing henceforth in court because I am a strong adherent to ‘Olokun’, the god of rivers.”
Clearly, his statement is tongue in cheek and a sort of mockery of the somewhat convoluted and jaundiced justice system that has found a foothold in our country, and he got the attention that he desired via the drama. The wise crack: action speaks louder than voice rings true here.
The embarrassing level of absurdity currently bedeviling the Supreme Court in particular and the judiciary in Nigeria, is disconcerting and unacceptable because it is the third arm in the political leadership triumvirate comprising of the executive, legislative and judiciary which is a typical feature in a democratic system of government that Nigeria is practicing.
The immediate past CJN, Muhammad has denied any wrong doing and defended himself by stating that the judiciary arm like the other two arms of government, is suffering from paucity of funds to meet the expectations of the justices, despite the N110 billion reportedly allocated to the judiciary in budget 2022.
But the offensive by the justices venting their spleen on then CJN, who has just quit the job, exposes the level of decadence in the temple of justice where those who have the privilege of seating there, are supposed be in more ways than one, super humans.
That is by virtue of the fact that they seat in judgment over the rest of the members of society who are considered lesser mortals. And that being the case, they are meant to be above board and do not have the luxury of descending into the arena of less mortals by washing their dirty linens in public which the highlighted absurdities besetting the judiciary evince.
Perhaps as an aftermath of the conflict between him and his colleague justices, the CJN that was at the receiving end of ire of the 14 outraged justices, has literally thrown in the towel. Whether the yielding of the position by Justice Muhammad to Justice Ariwoola would sanitise the judiciary and return its old glory of being the last bastion is for the future tell.
Apparently am not alone in worrying about the descent of the judiciary from the high pedestal where it deservedly sits to mingle with ordinary mortals in our country that have been reveling in everything vile. And it is the reason a former British Prime Minister, David Cameron at a cocktail on the sideline of a global anti-corruption conference, with President Buhari of Nigeria in attendance, whispered into the ears of the Queen of England, Elizabeth ll, that our president is the leader of a fantastically corrupt country. That is in-spite of President Buhari’s avowed intolerance for corruption.
Just before the current crisis rocking the judiciary burst into the open, I had just scanned through the aforementioned book by the respected Professor Sagay who dedicated a whole chapter titled, ‘The Judiciary And Justice In A Developing Society Like Nigeria’ to his concerns about the sordid state of affairs in his primary constituency-the legal profession.
I was particularly drawn to the content of a topic in the book which he aptly subtitled ‘Corruption, Abhorrent to Judicial Culture’.
Let us hear it directly from Sagay as he espouses and articulates his thoughts in the excerpt below which has a bearing on the despicable events now wracking the judiciary.
“In a modern civilised state, members of the legislative and executive branches of government can afford to be corrupt without dangerously affecting the development and survival of the state, but not so, the judiciary. A modern state cannot survive large-scale judicial corruption. That will bring chaos, confusion and anarchy.”
He argues further that “Even during the pristine, hallowed and much lamented First Republic, major political figures were accused and tried for corruption. A Commission of Enquiry was even set up to enquire into the alleged corrupt act of a major political figure. He resigned his high political position as head (Premier) of a Regional Government, parliament was dissolved, an election followed in which his party was returned with a bigger majority in the relevant House of Assembly and that was that.”
According to him, “The point being made here is that the fabric of society was not shaken to its foundations amidst the political fervor, excitement and disagreement that followed this and other less earth-shaking developments. Why? Because the judiciary was intact, above the frenzy, noble, detached, unruffled, neutral, the epitome of integrity, nobility and honour.”
Not done with sharing his candid view about judges, courts and the rest of society, Professor Sagay quipped: “Only one word strikes me when I enter the courtroom setting either as counsel or litigant – AWE! That is what the position of a judge is supposed to be – awe inspiring.
And it is not empty awesomeness. The judge is equipped with power to assert his authority by sending anyone to prison, lawyers included. We are meant to respect judges and view their office as sacrosanct because they represent the source of society’s ultimate stability and as we also say they represent the last hope of the common man.”
Wearing his anti-corruption cap, of which he is the current Chairman of the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), Sagay did not mince words about his disdain for corrupt people.
“The public servants and politicians who conspire to bribe and corrupt our judges deserve especially, harsh punishment. The worst culprits in this sad and sorry state of affairs are the lawyers, mainly senior advocates, who shamelessly approach judges to introduce them into this demeaning and shameful culture. These senior advocates deserve the harshest punishment of all. The EFCC, ICPC and the police must monitor and investigate the activities of lawyers who receive a share of the proceeds of crime as their fees. They should be treated as accessories after the fact, because they share in the proceeds of the crimes of politically exposed persons and once paid from that stained loot, it becomes their life’s struggle to protect and shield the primary criminals from the consequence of their crime.”
The duty to accept a brief does not exonerate a lawyer, who convinced or suspects his client’s guilt, urges him to enter a plea of “not guilty” which he goes on to defend vigorously.
Such a lawyer would be grossly in breach of the ethics of the legal profession.”
Sadly, the mess threatening to wreck the judicial system in Nigeria is a reflection of the state of anomie that now reigns supreme in the entire gamut of government in Nigeria which could ultimately lead our beloved country into more perditions and ruins than it is in, already.
Putting all together, the shenanigans and chicanery that have been suffocatingly dogging the judiciary are not without implications and future consequences.
The dimension and potential catastrophic effect of the revolt of the 14 justices and melodrama by the lawyer in the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court may not be phantom-able, right now, but the stench will remain in the atmosphere.
Although Justice Muhammad is now out and Olukayode Ariwoola is the new CJN, the fall out of the latest crisis that is latent could be simmering like a molten magma underneath an active volcano, that is likely to erupt without warning.
So the National Assembly should take more than a passing interest in the matter as they are currently doing via the investigation being conducted on the conflict by the relevant committee.
If apart from mixing justice with politics, the much speculated financial independence for the judiciary is also a contributing factor to the quagmire, especially as the galloping inflation takes its toll on the budget of that arm of government, succour should be provided before that critical sector gets irreversibly corrupted.
As the lawyers would say when concluding a matter before a judge: l rest my case.