The CJN’s dilemma
I greatly admire Mr Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the Chief Justice of Nigeria. It seems to me that the country’s top jurist, spare of flesh, is full of the courage of his convictions. As I said in this column sometime ago, he is the only CJN so far to publicly confess that our judiciary and laws are not what they seem. The worms eating up our other institutions are having their fill in the judiciary too. And our judicial system is archaic and unfit to serve the modern legal needs of the modern society and the modern man. When laws are outdated, they create their own burden on those who administer them.
At a public forum sometime this year, Mr Justice Mohammed said: “There is need for an overhaul of the Nigerian judicial system in order to render it fit for the 21st century circumstances; there is need to ensure that justice is quick and inexpensive. Litigation has become slow, costly and highly inflating, especially given their complexity, endless interlocutory applications and potential for acrimony.”
It is a very fair analysis of what has crippled our judiciary system. Where, as in our case here, justice is for sale, only the rich can buy because they are willing to pay any price to secure judicial victory, as in election cases; and they do so at the expense of justice. And yes, “litigation has become slow…” I believe it is only in our country that cases go on forever. A simple case that would be disposed off by judges in other countries in a few hours take years here. Some judges take months just to deliver their judgment.
The need to reform our laws has been crying out for as along as, we, the old codgers, can remember. We cannot afford a judicial system tied to the millstone in the 19th century. If our laws must serve our needs and if our judicial system must serve the ends of justice, then in the circumstances, an overhaul of the system is both necessary and imperative. From his public statements about our archaic judicial systems and laws that have passed their potency date, I see in Justice Mohammed a reformist jurist whose tenure would draw the line on stone. It is naïve to deny that litigation is slow and expensive. Our lawyers have become shameless experts at interlocutory injunctions, a red herring misused by the lawyers and judges to prolong litigation and make it unnecessarily expensive. That is the way the game is played between the bench and the bar. Corruption and corrupt practices are at the root of this mess.
A determined purge of the bench would, in my view, kick off the reforms. So, I was quite happy for Mohammed when the DSS men staged a sting operation a few weeks ago and hauled in six or seven judges who have soiled their sacred judicial robes. I thought that Mohammed would be happy about this because a fairly clean and responsible judiciary with the DSS belling the cat, would constitute his legacy on the bench. I expected to hear him crow, as in Eureka!, but what I now hear is a mild form of howling.
He said the raid was an assault on the judiciary. No, your lordship. It was an assault on corruption and the corrupt. You see, we have treated the judiciary as such a sacred institution we forgot it was peopled by Nigerians, all of whom are lovers and victims of dirty lucre. Mohammed has refused to suspend those judges in the DSS net.
I do understand where he is coming from. As the head of the judiciary, he has a moral duty to protect his fellow judges. He had to speak out for them and the institution. Let us face it, much as he would welcome the overhaul of the system, I have no doubt he would hate to see a cowed judiciary with judges feeling that DSS men are looking over their shoulders. Moreover, if he had crowed for joy over the raid, it would easily have been interpreted that he was privy to the operation. That would constitute an assault on his integrity.
I know it is difficult but Mohammed should have managed to strike a balance. The sting operation was well-intentioned. Its primary objective was not to assault or cow the judiciary but part of the current effort to get our country back from those who care less for it and more for themselves. An action such as the DSS operation invariably submits to the law of unintended consequences. I would imagine the cowing of judges would be such an unintended consequence. The judiciary, because of a mistaken belief, was the only institution left standing in the country. How awfully sad that we now know better, much better. None of the three legs of our three legged form of government is standing any more.
The DSS sting operation arrested nearly N300 million waiting to be laundered in order enter the system. Good money. But it should not lull us into a false sense of achievement. Corruption runs deep and has hands twice those of the octopus. I have just come across an intriguing paper Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo delivered at a seminar sometime in 2007. He identified the following eleven methods through which corruption percolates the judiciary:
• Fabricating rulings in exchange for money;
• Blackmailing litigants into paying for, or excluding evidence;
• Making decisions based on instructions from local government party or senior judicial officials rather than the law or facts;
• Assigning, dismissing, delaying or refusing to accept cases or refusing to properly enforce court decisions;
• Extorting kickbacks from intermediaries for passing cases to certain judges;
• Trading law enforcement services for personal gain;
• Taking bribes from the plaintiff and defendant (or their lawyers) or both;
• Manufacturing court cases;
• Embezzling court funding;
• Bowing to the demands of local officials, criminal networks, local clans, social networks or economic interests;
• Abusing the power of judges to order suspension of business operations, the confiscation of property, the eviction of tenants…..
DSS has a long way to go. But never mind. This obvious tortuous journey of a thousand miles has begun. If we sustain it under this and succeeding administration, future generations of Nigeria would enjoy the benefits of living in a country in which justice is within easy reach of everyone; interlocutory injunctions that delay justice and deny justice is off our laws and squeaky clean judges deliver judgments that do not make God whimper.