‘Talk of judicial corruption points to a failure of the Bar, Bench’
The judiciary and it supervisory organ, the National Judicial Council (NJC), have been in the eye of the storm lately due to allegations of corruption within the system. The fallout of this disturbing development is the impending arraignment of judicial officers, fingered in the alleged corrupt practices. Yetunde Ayobami Ojo spoke with Lagos – based lawyer, Johnson Esezoobo, on the issue of corruption in the judiciary and the way forward.
Who do you think is responsible for the problem of corruption in the judiciary, the NJC or government officials?
The problem the judges are having today is regrettable but, I will say the Supreme Court should be held responsible. By the return of democratic rule in May 1999, managed by a snooty President, Nigeria had got to a high point of impunity. The challenge then was for the Supreme Court to take our laws to the level where they would humble everybody including the President and the judges. But it never did that, rather, the court itself became arrogant, when it said in 2007 that it had a right to be wrong, which was not a good statement by a democratic institution such as the court.
That statement seemed to leave the judges with a license to do as they like, believing that nothing would happen. The Supreme court itself led the way by harassing a lawyer, a very senior member of the Bar out of the court for merely pleading the course of his client and the Bar kept quiet. It is the aftermath of all those issues that we are witnessing today. When a man believes so much in his strength and feels he can do and undo, he will soon realise that his strength lies in doing what is right as well as in wisdom rather than flaunting his strength around. Samson in the Bible is a good example of what is happening today, where NJC as a weeping boy, is issuing statement in lamentation of what is going on.
How did you feel seeing judges residences raided by DSS?
No responsible lawyer should be happy that the house or office of a judge is raided. This is because the respect that a lawyer enjoys in the society is a function of the respect the society has for the law which itself is a function of the very high esteem the judges are held. Whether you like it or not, a judge has a special aura around him. When a judge passes by, you feel it. Without the judge, there can’t be law and without law, there can’t be society. The implication is that any disrespect to the judge runs down the entire society.
Is it not a source of worry that the judges are allegedly conducting themselves in such a way that the aura is being faded?
At the time that the Supreme Court made statement in 2007, Nigeria was saddled with a President who did not pretend that he was going to be bound by the law or even the advice of his ministers or advisers. He ignored the decision of the apex court that he had no right to seize the Lagos State Local Government Funds. The Supreme Court did not do anything to enforce its judgment. Rather, it took to arrogance of power and harassed a lawyer out of court asking him to carry his complaint to God.
It is this arrogance that made the NJC to say to the SSS that it is not amenable to an invitation to a judge to answer to allegations of criminal offence of bribery and corruption. But more importantly, were the rumours that time that some persons were writing judgments for the Supreme Court. Besides, the manner the NJC got Salami out of the Bench will not go un-redressed. That incident brought the judiciary very low because it made judges that walk with special aura played cheap. When a man does or allows a wrong to be done to another, his own is waiting for him. Up to tomorrow, many lawyers still wonder how the Sokoto government election matter got to the Supreme Court.
What is your take on the arrested judges threatening to sue for the alleged infringement of their rights and the alleged persecution by government for their refusal to be compromised?
If they are sure of their claim, the matter is simple. They can go to court. Besides, NJC can do something in collaboration with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). In a functional democracy, if the government does what the affected judges are alleging, it can cause impeachment of the president but we do not take advantage of our law. The claim of the affected judges would have been more meaningful if nothing was found in their houses during the attack. I would personally carry placards and file a public interest suit to protest the harassment of the judges. But the huge sums of money found in their residences cannot make anyone defend the judges. It is unthinkable that the office or residence of a judge will be raided like that of a common criminal involved in 419 or robbery or any other form of crime. Not so much because the law says it cannot be so done or that the judge is above the law but because the office or residence is sacred. He is not expected to be involved in anything that should make anybody think that his house or office could be a target of attack.
But the situation could have been avoided?
It is obvious that some of the judges took the judiciary as a place for trading as justice is now commodity for merchandising. It is certainly not a thing to rejoice about, that a judge will be disgraced the way they have been treated but the problem is that many of them have become so arrogant that they don’t like to take advantage open to them to correct themselves. I have had occasion to meet a judge in chambers to confront him with a wrong thing he did and ask how he would feel if I took him up. The judge apologised and asked that I bring a motion to enable him set aside the order he made. This was in 1994 but unfortunately, the judge is late now. But in a recent case, a lady judge was reported by the client to have been compromised by a person close to the other party.
I assured the client that the rumour couldn’t be true. But in court, the judge actually veered off, showing that something had happened. The judge called my lawyer ‘olodo’. The ruling she delivered overshot the processes before her. She was undoubtedly playing to the gallery. I complained to the Head Judge to afford her the opportunity to be corrected by her boss. The Head Judge phoned me and said the judge was wrong to have behaved the way she did and pleaded with me to please withdraw my petition against the judge. I did. One lesson is that if the Bar and the Bench had been working with a mutual purpose of ensuring good administration of justice, they could minimise incidence of corruption by correcting themselves. But many of the judges have become too arrogant to listen to correction, forgetting that they were lawyers before becoming judges. The issue of corruption has become something of a public discussion.
So how do you reform the judiciary?
Judicial reform is not all about fighting corruption. Our attitude must change. Many lawyers take some cases to court not for genuine reason of seeking justice but to use the system to oppress the other party or for circumventing the law. We must evolve a process of punishing such lawyers for improper use of the process to achieve unlawful purpose. The talk of corruption in judiciary is a failure of both the Bar and the Bench. One cannot blame the other. We are both guilty. For example, why will a case in the Supreme Court spend as long as 10 to 11 years? How does that help investment, local or foreign? How does it help commerce and industry and how does it help development?
There are concerns that corruption in the judiciary cannot be stemmed. How do we ensure that compliance goes beyond this government?
What will happen is that a new style in engaging in corruption will be designed by the people both in the judiciary and other arms of government. Buhari has only taken individual steps to fight corruption because he has the political will. That is not to say the way the President has addressed it is the best. The best is how to stem it. However, every judge should talk to himself or herself that they would now want to be involved in corruption. The NJC must also sit up in disciplining judges. For somebody to have become a judge, he would have spent 10 years as a lawyer before becoming a judge. It means that he is qualified.
A judge is more like a god. For a judge who has got to the Court of Appeal and moved to the Supreme Court to be arrested by the people they can command by the order of the court, is not a good development. So, judges should be above board. Anything unbefitting should not be attached to judges, not because they are not humans, but because they are judges. Their pronouncement can terminate life so they must ensure they examine themselves.