‘NJC’s non-publication policy meant to avoid media trial’
The National Judicial Council (NJC) recently adopted a policy that seem to be an infringement on the right of the media to have access to information following allegations of corruption levelled against some judges. In this interview with GODWIN DUNIA, a Lagos-based lawyer, Chief Macdonald Omijie-Omolemen, puts the issue in perspective and concludes that it is to avoid cases of media trial and public judgment against judicial officers. He also spoke on the role of the NJC and other challenges facing the judiciary.
How do you view the new policy from NJC stating that the media should not be privy to petitions written against Judges?
I think the reason NJC took that decision is that they may not want the petition published yet until they get to the root of everything so that at the end of the day, a wrong impression about one Judge or the other would not be disseminated. Most often, when the media publish some stories, it would look like what is called newspaper judgment, where somebody would be alleged to have done something wrong. When that happens, comments would follow. Before you knew it, on the pages of newspapers the person may be condemned whereby he is an innocent person and the person we are talking about now is a Judge who is in a position to determine the life or the death of somebody.
The question will now be, is it fair for wrong information to be disseminated because when you do that and at the end of the day the person is found innocent, people would start wondering why is that the Judge still sits?
To somebody who never knew how it goes, he may end up concluding that the judge in question might have wriggle out himself in a corrupt manner. That directive by NJC was not to infringe on the rights of the media to disseminate information. There ought to have been some sensitization of the directives by NJC since the body now have a public relation outfit. Through that unit, they ought to have let everybody know their intention. People will not take anything coming from the judiciary in good fate because of what has happened because corruption is already attached to it. One of the lawyers accused of bribing a Judge has also alleged that the EFCC also gave the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court, the sum of N500, 000 during his mother’s burial.
Do you think the agency still have the moral justification to accuse the lawyers of corruption?
Judges to start with are human beings. They were born like you and I, before they decided to pick up career in law and eventually applied to become a member of the Bench. Nothing stops them from having friends, most of those that gave them this sums of money may not be having any matter pending before them in their courts. For instance, it was alleged that Rickey Tafa (SAN), gave N200, 000 to a judge. Is that what would influence a Judge? I mean we have to be reasonable. Most of my classmates are on the bench. If they are my friend and their children are wedding or they are celebrating their birthday, am I not supposed to felicitate with them? It will be a different thing if that lawyer has a matter before the court and now gave the Judge that money. With that, it can be inferred that the intention was for the Judge to favour him. When there is none and you gave your friend something, don’t the executive give their friends gifts? Judges should sit up and do the right thing, because this is a story of the pot calling the kettle black. If you want to talk of corruption, which arm is more corrupt?. I am not supporting judicial corruption but the executive is heavily corrupt. Why I blame some Judges is that they are almost not bold enough to give decision against the executive. There are some matters some years back I filed against the Lagos state government, the matter got delayed by so many factors, at the end of the day, the litigant got frustrated and told me not to bother that he is no longer interested in the case.
After a lot of investigation, I discovered that these judges are scared. They are afraid to make orders against the executive, because they appointed them. If they were doing the right thing, dealing with the situation, as long as justice will be served to all parties, would they not be respected? Now, look at how the executive is dealing with them as if they are charlatans.
Do you agree that appointment to the bench has not always been based on merit?
One of the former executives of Nigerian Bar Association, Lagos, who is now an activist, did discussed about the mode of appointing Judges in Channels Television and his revelation was like an eye opener. We got to know, through what he said, how wrong people have often been made Judges. Through that interview, I was able to see how wrong persons have found their way through political connections and godfatherism, to the bench. Through that knowledge, I want to submit that they look again into how Judges are made. Of recent, I think former CJN, Justice Aloma Muktar, tried to get credible men on the bench, because you now find professors, lawyers not less than 25 years at the bar that were actively in practice being made Judges at the federal high court level. If it continues like that perhaps we will always have the right judges in our courts. We need to put those willing to do the job, not the son or daughter of one politician or the son of someone who sponsored one person to become the governor of a state. Appointment of judges should be made meritoriously and NBA is the immediate constituency of both lawyers and members of the bench because you have to be a lawyer first before you go to the bench.
So NBA must be involved. Politicians have really damaged a lot of things. It wasn’t like this before. Most Judges before this democracy that were made by the military were mostly appointed on merit. There was a time in Lagos then that they would give some level of consideration to the lower bench, the very excellent Magistrates to be elevated to the higher bench, some considerations to the Ministry of Justice, some consideration to those in private practice and you discovered that most of them who were appointed were excellently good. But now, we see strange faces and at times, we hear this judge is so and so person’s daughter, she was brought from United Kingdom to come and be a Judge. There must be a collaboration between those who appoint Judges and the Nigerian Bar Association.
What do you think has been the role of the NJC in all these crises within the judicial sector?
The NJC had always found itself in a lot of dilemma because of the fact that, often times, the judiciary either at the state or federal level had always refused to respect whatever they say. For instance, before now, there was a governor in Rivers State, who rejected a Chief Judge of the state confirmed by the NJC. The said governor refused to accept that of the NJC and said his own candidate must continue to act as CJ. I am also aware of instances where NJC would recommend that certain Judge(s) should be dropped but the executive will not respect it. The judiciary had always been the unfortunate arm of government.
And most reasons adduced to this are the fact that judicial funding is from the executive. The executive approves whoever becomes a member of the bench; the executive has right to decide who goes out of the bench and who remains there too. So, there is no clear-cut independence for the judiciary and that is the problem. In other parts of the world, the judiciary has clear-cut independence. Their funding is direct to them, they present their budget, they decides who becomes a member of the bench and they also go about disciplining whoever errs. But here, the NJC’s powers are limited, their powers are subject to the approval of the executives, they are more or less like advisory that is what they are. They make recommendations.Whether that recommendation will be respected or not is a different ball game. I want to believe that it is a deliberate act, otherwise the NJC ought to have been so empowered to have the power to dismiss a Judge that is corrupt, then hand over the Judge to either EFCC, ICPC or the Police as the case may be and at the same time, allowed to manage crisis within the judiciary.