The cost of delinquency
When faced with an appeal in a case of alleged judicial misconduct, the Supreme Court of Appeal of South Africa in the case of Nkabinde and Another v Judicial Service Commission and Others (2016) 2 All SA 415(SCA) excerpted a piece of the decision of the Canadian Supreme Court in Judge Therrien v Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Quebec in espousing judicial ethos thus: `The judicial function is absolutely unique. Our society assigns important powers and responsibilities to the members of its judiciary…accordingly, the personal qualities, conduct and image that a judge projects affect those of the judicial system as a whole and, therefore, the confidence that the public places in it…judges should, therefore, strive to conduct themselves in a way that will sustain and contribute to public respect and confidence in their integrity, impartiality and good judgment.’
All over the world, the judiciary which is mostly the third and ‘weakest’ arm of government purely in terms of resource allocation and control occupies a distinct place in the heart of society which sees it not just as a buffer and check against the other arms of government but as `the last hope of the common man’ as appositely ingrained in Nigerian case law and local lore. Such is the repository of trust society emplaces in its judiciary especially when same furthers its reputation by independent and impartial judgments in defence of societal values and the most vulnerable members. In the face of rabidly soaring inequality bred by skewed systems and practice of governance, a mostly religious world ascribes a divine role to its judiciary and expects it to act without fear or favour and to remain morally unblemished.
In Nigeria, the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) which is the proponent law of the land clearly spells out the place and role of the judiciary in Section 6. The Constitution also establishes a National Judicial Council in Section 153(1)(i) and in its Third Schedule clearly spells out its powers and functions. Further extant legislations by the National Assembly have furthered and clarified these roles all in salutary recognition of the salubrious functions the judiciary must play in any society which must thrive and the unsavoury consequences of an unnecessarily fettered judiciary.
The Nigerian judiciary has not been spared the many hassles that have assailed the country since independence and has on more occasions than can be counted found itself at once in the eye of the storm and in throes, convulsed by poor funding, executive interference, rogue judges, desperate litigants and the increasing suspicion of a citizenry which pushed to the wall by systemic inequality and insidious corruption now bare their fangs at that arm of government they can relate to and find refuge in.
During his long and sometimes painfully lonely odyssey to the preeminent position in the country, President Muhammadu Buhari found little to cheer about the Nigerian Judiciary after he twice held the short end of the stick at the apex court. When he declared to an international audience shortly after mounting the presidential saddle that the judiciary was his biggest headache, the handwriting appeared on the wall. In the dead of the night of Friday, October 7, 2016, the Department of State Security (DSS) hoisted the harbinger when it nicodemously raided the homes of so judges on allegations of corruption. Since then Nigerians have been treated to one display of dirty laundry after another. During his pre inauguration speeches and repeatedly at his inauguration, he repeatedly fired warning shots at corruption and vowed its annihilation. Since then, the President through the instrumentality of anti-corruption top dog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) has spared little in an ostensible attempt to clean the Augean stables.
To stakeholders and keen watchers of the judiciary, that the judiciary is caught in the tidal wave of the anti corruption battle provides little surprise. Given its position as arbiter, it was always going to determine judicially the fate of all those alleged to be corrupt in keeping with the rule of law and the principles of natural justice. It was hardly going to stop at that by human standards, for indeed, given the critical role it plays, it was always going to be the target of sleigh of the hand manipulatory gymnastics by the executive, ill disciplined lawyers, desperate litigants and the very foibles of the human nature.
In the light of all these, the recent unsettling raid by DSS operatives on judges and the nauseatingly disturbing allegations and counter allegations that have been flying around fittingly call into question the proactivism and prescience or otherwise that the NJC has demonstrated as ‘the door through which judges pass to the Bench.’
The premium that justice and the society places on its torch bearers demand irreducibly that those entrusted with this onerous task be kept on their toes constantly and all lawful checks put in place to insulate them from the misguided Faustian bargain of those who think that justice could be sold and bought. It is better late than never and the society is a continuum but in the light of the very sour allegations stalking some judges and the entire judiciary like a spectre, the new National Judicial Policy, the Judicial Ethics Committee and other measures recently put in place by the NJC seem more like bolting the barn door after the horse has bolted; a futile medication after the cadaver is discovered.
Nothing can be put beyond the steely claws of vigilance and will in the battle for the soul of the judiciary and consolidation of our democracy in the face of insidious corruption, but for now, the NJC’s dereliction continues to chisel away at the reputation of the judiciary as delinquency continues to extract its cost with vengeance.
• Obiezu lives in Abuja.