‘Corrupt judges deserve long jail terms’
Justice Samson Odemwingie Uwaifo, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, is known for his forthrightness and fairness in his judgments. He spoke to ALEMMA-OZIORUVA ALIU in his residence in Benin City, the Edo State Capital on the recent arrest of some Judges over alleged corruption
Your reputation across the country as retired Justice is very high. How did you attain it?
As a child, I had a father who believed in honour and integrity. He did not tolerate any evil thing, like you going to take money from his purse. No, that will not arise! We grew up that way, so that sense of honour, which was what I imbibed all through.
I will tell you something; when I was appointed a High Court Judge, before then, I never saw the record book, so the first time I sat, I saw it written there, ‘His Lordship, The Honourable Mr. Justice S.O. Uwaifo, and I was wondering, who is he that they are talking about? Is it me? You can imagine how that will reflect on me. So, I am now appointed to sit in judgment over others?
Added to my background, I then said to myself, God has given me this job; I must do it to His satisfaction. It gave me the desire to be honest at all times.
When you say a Judge is dishonest or that he/she takes bribe, it sounds strange. I cannot really apprehend it. I can’t. If you ask any lawyer who appeared before me or some of the Judges who knew me, they will tell you the same thing, that I stood my ground at all times. Nobody was able to approach me, because they knew what I was capable of doing.I married my work; I wasn’t thinking of any other thing.
What was your income like as a Judge?
When we were appointed in 1975, we were earning N5, 000 a month, but after reviews, it became N58, 000, as at the time I was in Court of Appeal. It was then that former Head of State, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida introduced the Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP) and the value of Naira reduced.
I immediately sold five of my bungalows that I built when I was practicing as a lawyer before being appointed a Judge. After several years, I was appointed a Supreme Court Justice.
When I first got there, our salary was about N205, 000 a month. It was later when I retired that they increased it to about N500, 000. Till now, they have not reviewed it
But the good thing about it was that when I was retiring, I gave my valedictory speech to show how my mind was working throughout, where I said there is the unfortunate tendency for some people even those in authority to misunderstand the important role of the Judiciary in the maintenance of law and order, for redressing grievances, protecting individual rights and promoting and ensuring democratic culture.
There is often an underlying doubt about the dispensation of justice on the merits. Those who really do not want their official action questioned, even in a democratic dispensation, regard Judges as undeclared enemies. This puts justice and injustice at crossroads in relation to the concept of democracy.
As Reinhold Niebuhr put it: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Democracy is most obviously seen to be necessary, when the tendency of an autocrat puts justice at risk. But one sure way of making democracy stay on course is to enthrone justice.
Similarly, individual rights, when systematically trampled upon, lead to loss of faith in the polity.Therefore, in the performance of its office, a superior court (in particular) owes itself, for the sake of the dignity of the Judiciary, and owes society, for the sake of maintaining the public’s confidence, and not least owes the parties before it, for the sake of justice, the duty to administer the law in a manner that ensures that there remains reasonable validity in the claim that the Judiciary is the last line of defence and hope of those who approach it.
A corrupt Judge is more harmful to society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. He could be restrained physically. But a corrupt Judge deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals through abusing his office, while still being referred to as “honourable.” It is difficult to bring him to account under our system.
No Judge worth the name should feel inclined to hide any positive element of his head in the closet through fear or favour or from corrupt motives or simply on grounds of intellectual compromise when reaching a decision. He/she must to the best of his/her ability and act as God’s nominated agent.
That has been my personal moral philosophy of the duty call of a Judge since I was appointed a High Court Judge. So, a Judge should not just write his/her judgment; he/she must let it appear he/she made it with a clear commitment to convince. That must be demonstrated by the quality of its analysis and transparency.
An unconvincing judgment is like a song rendered in awkward decibel; it can neither entertain nor can it be danced to. Everybody knew me about that and you can imagine when I hear that some Judges are compromised. There are some of them who are good, but the method of appointment and promotion, the standard has dropped.
So, when I hear that a Judge is corrupt, I just wonder whether the man or woman is crazy. It means you will take money from people and then you twist the judgment. When you ought to have thought straight, you will twist it in order to give judgment. In other words, you are no longer yourself; you are crazy. If the facts are there, every Judge who is corrupt must be arrested, prosecuted and jailed. If you do that, others will be afraid and they will sit.
Look at what they did the other day. I nearly wept. The man, I understand, asked for N200 million. Can you imagine a person asking for that in the Court of Appeal?
The National Judicial Council (NJC) found that he did that. What did they do? They retired him. And I said, you retired such a person and you will be paying him pension and gratuity?
The recommendation should have been for such a person to be dismissed and then handed over to the Police for prosecution and if he is found guilty, he/she should be jailed. If he/she decides to be taking bribe, he/she is no longer a Judge. He/she is a thief.
What will you say about the arrests of some Judges over alleged corruption?
This one that just happened, I don’t know the facts. But as I had said, you can hardly experience the real need to have a judiciary that can be relied upon until you are put through the anxiety of having the court to decide your fate or your civil rights and obligation or those of your loved ones.
You can imagine what lay litigants risk by staking their confidence in our justice system. This calls for the competence and integrity of both the Bar and the Bench, for goodness sake.
The Supreme Court is both the final court and the constitutional court of the land. I need hardly averr to the importance of this court in its role in the judiciary as the third arm of government, but I must not fail to emphasise that everything should be done to ensure the continued constitutional relevance and credibility of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court needs very capable judicial officers at all times to be able to achieve this. Let the day never come when it may be said that the Supreme Court could not stand forthright enough, but buckled under pressure, having regard to the manipulative dimension prevalent in our socio-political environment, but manifesting as undergrowth.
I saw the thing coming and tending to overshadow, with unpredictable consequences, our sense of honour and direction as a nation. The Supreme Court must always demonstrate even more than ever in such atmosphere, that it can neither bend nor break.But are they doing that? When I read some judgments delivered by the Supreme Court, I ask what is going on?
What of the allegation that some of the arrested Judges took money?
Well, like I said, I don’t know the facts, but if they took money and people are saying the Department of State Security (DSS) did wrong, I don’t think we should press that too much.
What the DSS should have done is to take the Police along, so that once they discover anything, they say, Police, take over. I suppose the DSS was working on intelligence; they should have had confidence in the Police.
This country, we are almost sinking and we have to be very careful. I believe that President Muhammadu Buhari means well in fighting corruption. He means well; he doesn’t want corruption to remain, because it is eating us so badly and like he said, if we don’t kill corruption, it will kill us. We have almost reached that stage.
The most painful aspect will be if any Supreme Court Justice is said to be involved in this. I just pray that it is not true, because if a Supreme Court Justice is involved in this, then I will almost want to say, dissolve the Supreme Court, let all of them come and start interview and start all over.Those who are bad should go, because we are in real trouble. The whole world is watching what is happening.
As a Judge, have you ever been approached to compromise your decision?
When I was a Judge, if you give me money as gift, I won’t take. I believe they knew right from time because people will always talk about Judges. They would have said, as a Judge, can he help you?But they may have said no, that Judge will not take it, so nobody tried it at all, because if they had tried, I would have just exposed them.
What is the condition of a serving Judge in terms of take-home pay and other incomes?
In our time, it wasn’t as good. But from what I hear, it is better now. They get all sorts of allowances and all that.They also have severance pay and their salary now is close to N1 million a month, so on the whole, I think a Judge is reasonably comfortable and has no justification to want to have extra money in any dubious manner.
Stay and do your work thoroughly, because that is what you are paid to do and it gives you settled mind. A Judge who concentrates to do his/her job is good, but a Judge who is corrupt will not be satisfied. No matter how much they give him, he cannot be happy.
What could make a Judge compromise his calling and become corrupt?
Yes, that is, losing your sense of honour. Your mind is on money and you can do whatever you like, just for money.But how can you be happy? If somebody reads your judgment, they would be wondering how you came about it, because there will be no sense in it, nothing to learn from it. I think the way or process of appointing Judges should be looked into thoroughly. You don’t appoint layabouts as Judges. Some of them have not done any case successfully before.
What is your suggestion as a way forward for the judiciary?
Appointment should be strictly on merit. You must deserve to be appointed. You may come from anywhere, but you must deserve to be appointed. Federal character, yes, so that the country can be together, but whoever you are bringing from a particular area in furtherance of federal character, that person must deserve to be appointed. He must be tested and qualified. Merit is the thing.
The NJC, to me, is very weak at the moment. There are some people they put there that are corrupt. I know one or two people who themselves were corrupt.
So, the NJC should be reinforced. It must be only Judges who are there. They can bring people who are not lawyers; it is a question of being people of impeccable character.
Bring people who cannot be influenced and then when they find a Judge to be corrupt; there should be no question of giving him or her light punishment. There is nothing like light punishment in corruption; they should forfeit their entitlements. Once they begin to do that, corruption will vanish from the system, because nobody wants to lose his/her entitlements.
Any Judge found to be corrupt must be dismissed, because when you do that, it is a sign that corruption is not allowed and corruption will run away from the system. Nobody will want to be associated with corruption. There is no question of retirement, because he/she will still get pension and gratuity.
Judges should be advised to be firm, no matter that the President is saying that Judges are his problem. That is the way he sees it, but that must not intimidate Judges. The President has a right to want to fight corruption. If he feels that Judges are not doing enough to help him to fight corruption, he should get the CJN to do the job properly.
Judges should stand firm. They should not be intimidated, once they are sure that they are doing the right thing, not to do the thing that will please the President.
What the President said about the judiciary may have come from his mind, but that is rather brash or brazen and can make people feel uncomfortable.
Now that all these things are happening, one will begin to think whether this was what he wants the judiciary to do.
If the DSS had taken the Police along, it would have been better. If they, the Judges, have actually done what they are accused of, well and good, but if not, that will be an affront.
Some people must have sympathy for the Judges, but if they are found to be, they must face the music; they must face the consequences of corruption. Panama’s Supreme Court Judge, Alejandro Moncada Luna, was convicted of corruption and sentenced to five years in prison.
Also, Pennsylvania (in the United States) Judge got life sentence for prison kickback scheme. Five corrupt Judges in US were sent to jail for their crime and the countless lives they tried to destroy. So, any of our Judges found to be corrupt must be sent to long jail term.
What should the NJC do in appointing a Judge?
I have heard views expressed, which tend to suggest the existence of three schools of thought. There is the conservative, but well-meaning view, that appointments to the Supreme Court should be restricted to the Court of Appeal.The merit of this is that Justices of that court who are competent and suitable are encouraged. It is only right that this be so.
Fortunately, there are some bright stars among them who also work incredibly hard. With their tenure in that court, they will bring their wealth of experience along with them to the Supreme Court if they are given the opportunity.The other gradually emerging school of thought is that in a dynamic world, talents should be attracted, wherever they may be found, to meet the growing challenges in justice administration.
This school cites Section 230(3) of the 1999 Constitution as making room for this. The subsection reads: “A person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) or of a Justice of the Supreme Court unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen (15) years.”
The merit of this may become obvious in circumstances of the application of the federal character policy. I like to defend federal character. The policy or something similar is applied even in some well-advanced democracies.
But I will not say it should be embraced just for its sake, as that may tolerate mediocrity. The hope is that with appropriate exploration, it will be possible to find and acquire the right materials to meet policy.
Therefore, in case a situation should arise where there is apparent difficulty in applying federal character from the conservative source for any particular area, should seasoned Senior Advocates and academics cum legal practitioners or any other suitable judicial officer from that area not provide a solution?
That allows for comparative options in order to maintain standards for the overall good of the country. It also has its own indirect merit, as it would remind those from any particular area in the Court of Appeal that there could be a possible alternative to their choice if they fell below standard.
This country belongs to all of us. Its citizens and those who live in it deserve legal justice, i.e. justice according to the laws of the land, properly administered by those suited and capable and paid to do so without expecting any secret or personal or group benefits or advantages as a condition for performing their duty.
The third school of thought is that as soon as it is practicable- a likely long-term solution – (if we work hard towards it), only or mostly Senior Advocates of distinction should be appointed to the High Court Bench.
That is how it is done in England. You have to be a QC (Queens Counsel) before you are appointed to the High Court, from there you begin to rise. They will eventually climb the judicial ladder and so in time to come, the concerns of lowering standard will be minimised or even eliminated.
I wish to suggest some rather pro-active ways that may help, to some extent, in addressing the situation. The whole idea is to make effort to improve and maintain standard of integrity and performance, and eliminate mediocrity.
Mediocrity is a form of socio-cultural miasma of degradation, which has the imperceptible, but strong effect of depriving the people of their just and legitimate expectations.
Again, mediocrity tends to create an atmosphere of hostility towards meritocracy and tries to put it under suffering or slavery. The effect may take sometime to mature, but eventually, there is bound to be an awful rebound. A society or institution that tolerates mediocrity is inevitably left behind.
When it is installed in the Judiciary, it breeds a whirlwind of injustices. Therefore, no effort ought to be spared to keep it at bay.If, for instance, this country, which has produced several legal luminaries since about a century and a strong Supreme Court for half of that period, were to be unfortunate enough to have a Supreme Court that was top-heavy with mediocre, then it would be a reflection of the method of appointment and elevation in the Judiciary.
That method would need to be revisited, but we do not have to wait for that calamity to happen before new methods are tried out, so as not to make the Supreme Court a huge, dreadful and costly national liability.
Can this or is it likely that this will happen? This question does not need to be answered. All I have to say is that conscious efforts must be made to prevent it happening.
The emphasis is on the pre-eminent importance of the Supreme Court in the affairs of this country. It should not be a court for all comers, simply because they have been in the Court of Appeal, or should appointment to it be on favour or just to satisfy any other cause.
It should stand and act really supreme and continue to be under the leadership that can be trusted for truth, fairness and even-handedness; which will not compromise on the priority of putting the call to duty first always, and accordingly will equally be concerned about the welfare of all members of the court, of all grades, who make the scheme work.
It must be a leadership that has no skeleton in the wardrobe, which may be exploited externally as a bargaining chip in times of difficulty to try to bend the court.
It must, in the same vein, discourage and shun sycophancy, which is no sign of loyalty, but a means of misrepresentation of the true view about facts and circumstances, including that about the sycophant himself, through the instrumentality of a blindfold devised by him, all for personal private purposes tending to the disadvantage of others.
The leadership must ensure that an acceptable overall ethos prevail, so as to firmly uphold this sensitive national organ of state.In making suggestions, I shall again use appointment to the Court of Appeal as an example.
First, the appointing authorities must not overlook what I shall call common knowledge about the corrupt tendencies of any Judge in the dispensation of justice.
The present attitude seems to be to insist on “official” or “concrete” evidence of corruption, even when those taking part in the appointment, or some of them, are themselves aware of this common knowledge.
Caught-in-the-act evidence of corruption is an extreme occurrence, “official” or “concrete” evidence can only be got when the whole scheme has burst open. Again, this is a rare occurrence in this country.
I think common knowledge ranks as strong public opinion. Anyone who has negative public opinion of corruption about him/her has no business on the Bench, or if already there, should not be appointed to a higher position, because justice delivery relies largely on the public’s confidence. Usually, people do not have common knowledge of corruption against an upright Judge.
My second suggestion is that lazy Judges should not be appointed to the Court of Appeal. A lazy Judge is easy to identify. Thirdly, an incompetent Judge should be similarly denied appointment. He/she is as reprehensible and irritating as a corrupt Judge. Both are twin evils all said and done.
In this regard, every Judge being considered for appointment to the Court of Appeal must be asked to present copies of his/her most recent judgments (say five or 10 judgments).
The appointing authorities should design a method of disguising his/her identity from those judgments, which should then be made available to an ad hoc committee of senior Judges, distinguished senior advocates and top academics in law and other disciplines for assessment as to quality in all aspects in order to help the appointing authorities reach a fair decision.
Those who fall below acceptable standard for that high office should never be appointed.Finally, seniority should not be a major factor for consideration. It should be regarded relevant only when all other things are equal.