My lord, tell me when a gift is not bribe!
I’m not too sure what the rules of engagement are between the Bench and Bar outside the premises of courts. But I do know the Bench, Bar and their clients must meet somehow, at the town square to play ayo and socialise? I wouldn’t know how that is explained in the law books, but what distance is allowed at such hours, some of which could be odd and ungodly? It seems to me that there are gaps. I wouldn’t know the position of British foremost jurist, Lord Denning on this.
Take for instance, a highly traditional society like ours, where a number of ceremonies take place, how are members of the Bar and Bench expected to relate, so that when they exchange gifts, law enforcement officers will not return many months later to sniff and investigate the package? I think there ought to be established criteria, so that either a gift is gift, no matter who originated it and who the courier is; or, there is no gift at all. It does not serve justice, when a particular gift that emanated from someone associated with Mr. president is explained with so much energy as free will, while other gifts are hurriedly declared as products of graft.
If we invent a uniform understanding in that regard, it shouldn’t cost so much energy and ink to explain the propriety or otherwise of the gift of N500, 000 given to Justice Adeniyi Ademola for his daughter’s wedding by Mr. Kola Awodein SAN. According to presidential media aide, Femi Adesina, in a release published last week, both Justice Ademola, who happens to be on trial before an Abuja Court for corruption, and Awodein have been friends for 35 years. And in the spirit of that longstanding friendship, that gift was given. That cannot be faulted. The release, which was issued by Adesina from the highest office in the land, where the war against corruption is based and marketed as a major achievement, acknowledged that the gift from Awodein to Justice Ademola was nothing frivolous, but was given, “as our custom well recognises and demands…”
Permit me to ask: Is the Presidency, therefore, at home with gifts offered by friends of 35 years or 60 years to members of the Bench on the occasion of their daughters’ wedding or perhaps, their grandfathers’ burial, since it is part of our customs and traditions?
Not long ago, we had the case of Justice Mohammed Yunusa of the Federal High Court to deal with. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFFC), full of zeal like Saul of Tarsus, worked very hard to connect the gift the man got from a senior advocate to payment for judgments. The allegation was that Justice Yunusa collected a bribe of N225, 000 (just half of the gift Awodein gave to Justice Ademola) from Ricky Tarfa, SAN, and that it was used to gain favours. Part of the favours, according to EFCC, was that Tarfa’s firm was in the habit of asking the Chief Register of the Lagos Judicial Division of the Federal High Court to assign his case before Justice Yunusa.
Given the accurate presentation of facts, dates and data of transactions, Tarfa, in an affidavit deposed to by his chambers agreed to giving the said sum to Justice Yunusa, but only as support from a committee of friends to assist the Justice to bury his father, sometime in 2014 in Maiduguri. Justice Yunusa has since been unhorsed prematurely.
Effectively, and up to this point, the EFFC has been able to establish some link between lawyers and justices. The painful truth is that our justices are exposed and vulnerable. And as mortals, even though we expect godlike performance from them, they are not infallible because we set traps for them and lure them into temptation. That is no excuse.
And now that it concerns the Presidency, being linked not too remotely with a gift offered by Buhari’s lawyer to a judge at the time Buhari’s ‘no certificate’ case was to be heard, I do not expect Adesina to go sanctimonious about the nobility of intentions behind the gift of N500, 000. Why is it that Mr. Awodein is not the one explaining himself directly to Nigerians on how indebted he was to Justice Ademola, for which he had to raise all of N500, 000, by himself and not through a committee, as gift for just one wedding? Assuming all the friends of Justice Ademola were to raise that same amount, were it not better they build a factory for the man, so that he can dispense excellent and dispassionate justice, fully assured that he has a secured retirement benefit in place?
Some stories are better not told. That is why they say, when one is in a hole, there is no need to get agitated. Just stay calm, so that you do not dig further. In many instances, persons in the Presidency (a hole) have contradicted themselves over and again and Nigerians are simply astonished. All the preaching of Adesina on behalf of Awodein, could as well, be tendered in the case of Justice Yunusa, who got only N225, 000 from Tarfa and friends, to assist in his father’s burial.
In the war against graft, which is a good fight, and most Nigerians are sold on it, there must be a manifest level playing field, so that justice is well served. But there is now ample evidence that the graft war has some touch of interferences. We see the prosecutors picking and choosing, as well as, explaining frantically what gift is good intentioned, and which is roguery.
In cleaning the justice system and ridding it of corrupt practices, care must be taken to also look at the budget that is approved for the Justice Ministry at all levels, so that those in whose delicate hands justice is placed are not miserly remunerated, in the manner that renders them vulnerable to political predators. It is vulnerability that will make a Justice accept the sort of gift we are talking about. A judge in a sane society should not be associated with the type of huge gifts that are unraveling. Since the journey into this political dispensation flagged off in 1999, when election tribunals debuted, the level of vulnerability of judicial officials has jerked up.
Since it became fashionable for justices to upturn elections and award victory to those who lost out at elections, all manner of fraud have been introduced into the judiciary. There is a class of SANs that has become very influential and rich, too, courtesy of election tribunals. They wheel and deal on behalf of politicians, and they have access to judges. They charge their political clients astronomic legal fees and in the process give gifts to judges. They build schools and establish foundations to keep some of their monies. An unsuspecting and pauperised judge might find it excessive to begin to scrutinise gifts from friends of 40 years, only for him to encounter his benefactor arguing a case before him a few days later. And that could be the beginning of compromised justice system.
Recently, the Chief Justice of a state in the Southeast was the special guest or whatever at the birthday ceremony of the governor’s wife. Assuming on his way home a gift was packaged to appreciate his time and company? Should he take it or reject it? For me, it appeared ridiculous, that a justice of that calibre should preside at the birthday ceremony of a governor’s wife. He should not even be seen at a governor’s birthday, not to mention his wife’s, who is really not a part of the government. The Justice of the state is the number three citizen. He is the head of the entire judiciary, a co-equal arm with the executive and legislature. The day we begin to treat the judiciary with respect and dignity, the day we begin to provide amply for the upkeep of that crucial third arm of government, that is the day the journey to rid the judiciary of graft can be said to have started.
For now, I say, ‘My Lord, Tell Me Where To Keep Your Bribe!’
Prof Niyi Osundare, I salute!