The Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who stated this in Lagos at a public lecture entitled: “Go home and sin no more: Corrupt Judges escaping justice in Nigeria,” emphasised that the practice of just retiring corrupt judges was over under President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration. They will not only be tried and convicted, but their assets would be forfeited to the government. The AGF said, “I am reiterating that the fight against corruption shall be total and will not exclude judicial officers, who are found wanting. After all, it is beyond doubt that a corrupt judge cannot meaningfully contribute to the fight against corruption.” We cannot agree more.
Indeed, that the judiciary is at cross purposes with the Executive in dealing with this conundrum resonated in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Sunday, when the President held a town hall meeting with Nigerians living there. He also said, “On the fight against corruption vis-à-vis the judiciary, Nigerians will be right to say that is my main headache for now.” The President is right.
It is fascinating that the evidence that the Bench is drenched in corruption is widespread. Kayode Eso, a former justice of the Supreme Court, before he died, raised the alarm that “billionaire judges” were rampant; while a former President of the Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami, drew our collective attention to the ignoble role of retired senior justices acting as conduits of bribes to judges, on behalf of litigants seeking to pervert the course of justice. And the weight of it is crushing. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, disclosed through John Fabiyi, a Justice of the Supreme Court, at an event last year that 64 judges “were disciplined as appropriate,” between 2009 and 2014. By this he meant those given a slap on the wrist by easing them out of office. Such action is devoid of any deterrent. And it explains why the Bench has remained the weakest link in the anti-corruption chain.
Before Mariam Aloma-Mukhtar bowed out of office as the CJN in November 2014, she also painted a disturbing picture of this mess. While she inherited 139 petitions against corrupt judges, some fresh 198 cases were filed during her 28-month tenure, out of which 33 were considered worthy of attention. She said, “15 are awaiting responses from judges” as of November 2014. The incumbent may have received fresh petitions.
These damning accounts cohere with the reservations some senior members of the Bar periodically express about the misconduct of judges. For instance, a former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Joseph Daudu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, once said, “There is a growing perception backed by empirical evidence that justice is purchasable, and it has been purchased on several occasions in Nigeria.”
Some judges were found wanting in the adjudication of election petitions in 2003 and 2007, but were merely dismissed. We have also seen judges abuse interlocutory injunctions, give plaintiffs relief they did not seek, or give judgements totally incongruent with the law. Now, litigants, aided by their counsel, shop for crooked judges to buy justice before filing their cases. These aberrations have lowered the magisterial aura judges once radiated and it questions the integrity of our justice delivery system.
Apparently, Nigeria found itself at the crossroads today simply because of the hypocritical attitude of our judicial authorities, especially the National Judicial Council, the apex disciplinary body chaired by the CJN, which has been remiss in pushing for corrupt judges’ prosecution the way it is done in civilised jurisdictions. What is more, the corrupt executive arms of government we have had until recently were morally atrophied to go after tainted judges, conscious of the fact that they are co-travellers.
The NJC should, therefore, take its cue from the practice in Italy, the United States and other countries. In Italy, 16 judges were arrested in Naples in 2012, accused of collecting money to give favourable judgements to drug syndicates. Giancarlo Giusti was sent to jail for four years the same year for accepting luxury hotel accommodation, flight tickets, among other benefits, from a mafia group, just as Antonio Di Pietro was marched to prison for corruption in 1992. In the US, Mark Ciavarella Jnr, a judge, was jailed for 28 years for demanding a kick-back. Besides, he was ordered to pay $1.2 million in restitution.
No doubt, some bad eggs are still in the system. Dealing with petitions against judges that are pending before the NJC should be fast-tracked so that those found culpable could be used to demonstrate that all citizens are indeed equal before the law. This is the hallmark of modern societies. Action is urgently needed. The AGF’s envisaged clean-up of the Bench should be total. Some lawyers routinely play key roles in corrupting judges. If caught, they should be prosecuted. By and large, a corruption-free judiciary is a collective responsibility. That is why it is critical that all Nigerians should see it as a national duty by forwarding credible petitions to the NJC against any corrupt judge.
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