Friday, 8th December 2023

Accusations of cronyism, nepotism in judiciary unsettle stakeholders

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie (Deputy Editor, Abuja)
21 November 2023   |   4:36 am
Accusations of alleged cronyism and favouritism in the judiciary will not end until there is a collective effort to clear the Augean stable, concerned stakeholders have said.

Olisa Agbakoba

Accusations of alleged cronyism and favouritism in the judiciary will not end until there is a collective effort to clear the Augean stable, concerned stakeholders have said.

They said that though the “very embarrassing” claims are not new, the current leadership of the judiciary are duty bound to change the narrative for the good of the legal profession and health of democracy.

It will be recalled that senior judicial officers have recently been accused of bringing in their family members and friends to serve in the bench through the “back doors.”

While there are no laws forbidding families and friends of judicial officers from aspiring to attain senior positions, most Nigerians are concerned about the recruitment process that undermines integrity, transparency, and merit.

Such a situation, they said, would jeopardise timely and quality justice delivery. Judiciary was believed to be the last hope of the common man. So, the implication of this statement hinges on the perceived impartial and uncompromising disposition of revered judicial officers.

A very senior lawyer and former President, Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Dr Olisa Agbakoba (SAN), had earlier expressed doubt about the ability of the Nigerian judiciary to dispense untainted justice.

Agbakoba spoke shortly after the general elections of which most of the results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) were rejected.

Although former President Muhammadu Buhari had sarcastically urged aggrieved parties to go to court, Agbakoba feared he has lost a bit of confidence in “what the courts have been doing lately.”

According to him, there was a time “you could say ‘on the facts and the law, this is the likely outcome. Today, you cannot because there have been all kinds of silly decisions.”

Professor of Law, Chidi Odinkalu, has also expressed worry on how the judiciary hierarchy smuggled families, friends and even mistresses into office as judges.

Odinkalu was not against families and mistresses of judicial officers rising up but their manner of appointment, which undermined merit and integrity.

He insisted that appointing mediocre into such a revered profession meant no good for the country. He said: “Judicial appointments have been captured. At a time where suitable candidates, irrespective of where they come from, can no longer make it to the bench, you know we are in trouble.

“Not only that, to have a successful political career, you carry judges in your back pocket. To be able to proceed with anything in the country, politicians and judges decide it. Consequently, politicians do not need the votes of the electorates,” he lamented.

Speaking on the legitimacy of retiring judicial officers bringing in families and friends as replacement, a very senior lawyer in the Faculty of Law, Nasarawa State University, Keffi, Dr. Suleiman Nchi, noted that there was no law anywhere that says there won’t be such change, if they are qualified.

According to him, the constitution clearly stipulated the qualifications for becoming a lawyer, a judge and other allied appointments. “So, once you meet the constitutional requirements, legally speaking, you are qualified to be appointed a judge.

“Of course, usually, we say ‘nepotism’ but I think we should not make too much of it. If the children of judges are qualified to be judges, why not?

“I think the issue is whether there are better qualified people. If there are, and they are not considered, that is where one can complain, even though you will be complaining from the moral angle. But if they meet the minimum legal requirements and they are appointed, there is very little one can do.

“It is left to our judges to know that there is a certain level of restraint as a judicial officer and if you have to choose between your child who is not as qualified as another person, your integrity will be an issue and I think you should have the courage to be able to pick someone who is more qualified than your child,” he declared. Nchi noted that whenever such issues arise, “they will tell you that these children are qualified and they are also Nigerians.

“So, my daughter shouldn’t become a judge just because she is my daughter, if she is qualified? Why not?
“For example, Harvard University has an adage that says “everybody applying to Harvard is qualified.” This means there are other considerations aside from the minimum academic requirements and other things we don’t know about.

“So, judges may say, ‘well, everybody applying to be a judge in Nigeria knows he or she is qualified. So, our children are also qualified, and they are Nigerians. So, why should we discriminate against them? My children should not suffer because I am a judge,” he stated.

On the implications of evading screening due to relationships with senior officers, Nchi feared that getting appointed into a sensitive office without necessary qualifications would amount to incompetence.

“Incompetent people are the most susceptible to inducement and influences. They are easily corrupted; appeals are easily made to their emotional ties. That is why nepotism is regarded as highly objectionable,” he said.

An Abuja-based lawyer, Daniel Makolo, reckoned with Nchi, though warned on the dangers of nepotism in the appointment of judicial officers, which he said, was already visible in the kind of judgments being delivered.

“Some of those rich kids smuggled into the court don’t even know the law. Some of them don’t take their time to study it after passing from the Law School.

“The law is in the books, and you must discipline yourself to sit down to read, analyse it and logically conclude.

“Most of them on the bench today don’t even sit early. They will come to court by 11 a.m. without minding how long people have been waiting. By 1p.m., he is rising, leaving all the jobs on the table, while giving a new date for the next sitting. The implication is that the justice industry and justice delivery have been burdened.

“Not all the judges are guilty of that anyway. Some of them are disciplined and have that consciousness of wanting to improve but majority of them are what we call in Nigerian parlance, Aje butter, not Aje pako.

“So, it is comforting for them all the time. When they come to court, their attitude is that of the elites. Some of them could go to the extent of seeking vengeance with whoever tries to go against their empire or their various business interests,” he said.

Makolo added that judicial interpretation is subjective, an opinion of the judge and the knowledge of the law. His words: “If the character and integrity of the candidates are ignored in selection or appointment, it means that those who can deliver justice are not allowed into the system. Consequently, the judiciary is going down and they are in the pockets of big men and politicians.”

Makolo said the rot had been in the judiciary for a long time. According to him, Nigerians are only beginning to feel the pinch and as such, attention is gradually shifting to the judiciary.

He, however, frowned at the complacency of the National Judicial Council (NJC) over allegations of nepotism in the system. He recalled the issue of a Senator narrating how he used his judicial officer wife to obtain false justice at the election petition. Yet, nothing was heard of it afterwards.

“If as a lawyer I have concluded that I have lost hope in our justice system, what then will happen to the uneducated man?

“We need to sit up, if not, very soon, the judiciary will no longer be the last hope of the common man,” he warned.