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The ugly ones are not yet in the net

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Justice Onnoghen

I welcome the decision of the National Judicial Council to recall six of the eight judges it suspended following allegations of corruption levelled against them by the Department of State Services (DSS) and the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). It was fair; it was just; and yes, it was courageous.

Justices John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court, Uwani Abba Aji, of the Court of Appeal as well as Hydiareza A. Nganjiwa, A.F.A. Ademola, Musa H. Kurya and Agbada James Fishim, all of the high court and the National Industrial Court, were asked to resume work on June 7. In the case of Justice Ademola, however, the government said, not so fast. It is challenging his discharge and acquittal by the high court.

I am not rhapsodizing an ordinary decision of the council that should not ordinarily merit public attention, let alone any attempts to rhapsodize it. No, sir. After all, the council has a moral obligation to protect judges, arguably the keepers of the nation’s flickering flame of justice, against egregious allegations that amount to dragging their names through the mud and thus impugning their integrity.

I have two reasons for welcoming the decision of the council. My first reason is that in the context of our sense of natural or indeed any form of justice, the NJC decision is an aberration. The federal and the state governments are known for their total disinclination to own up when they are wrong, even if it means perpetrating and perpetuating injustice against innocent fellow citizens. It is more normal here to see that once the governments or their agents take a decision against anyone or a group of persons, they stick to it, right or wrong, just or unjust.

If the case of the justices were to follow the normal course, the justices so fingered for alleged corruption by the anti-graft agencies would not return to work. They would remain at home, their allegations unproven, writhing in the pain of the assault on their individual integrity; and thus forever cursed with the mud that sticks to such people for life. No state admission of wrong or guilt and no apology. Their case would drag on on the back of a tortoise through the labyrinth of political or judicial show of power until they attain their age of retirement by which time the nation would have moved on, leaving its yesterday tethered to the milestone of history.

I would not be so naïve or foolish even, as to see this as the dawn of a new sense of justice in our country. We have too many rivers to cross before we arrive in that Nederland. Still, when the abnormal is elevated to the normal it is worth celebrating when, through the accident of fate or pure luck, the abnormal reverts to normal and the abnormal returns to the abnormal, we would do well to take due note of it; careful not to put it down as a watershed but more as a reminder that no matter how long the tunnel, a shaft of light never fails to shine in it. I trust you are following me.

You would remember, if you were old enough then, that during the wild, wild purges of the federal and state public services by the Murtala Muhammed administration in 1975, hundreds of our fellow country men and women were unjustly retired or dismissed from service. When the government could no longer bear their daily complaints and groaning it set up a panel chaired by the late Col Pedro Martins of the Army Chaplaincy to look into them and tell government what it must do to redress the injustice dome to the innocent. The report and the recommendations saw some light but certainly not the light of day. In a cruel twist of irony, the Obasanjo military regime that set up the panel, retired Martins soon after he submitted his report and recommendations. The injustice visited on our fellow men and women were never redressed. The affected men and women were made to live with it.

Nor should we forget so soon what happened to Justice Salami, former president of the Court of Appeal. His case against the NJC and the government dragged through the court until the retirement age caught up with him. Since the court could not wind back the hands of the clock, his struggle benefited him nothing. Do you see why I see the NJC decision as a welcome departure from the past when anyone who felt injured or cheated by the state or its agency was denied justice and put out to pasture? I admit it would be premature to drink to that.

My second reason is that the case of the justices should compel new strategies in the anti-graft war. The DSS raids in the homes of their lordships excited the public, present company not excepted. We were not to blame. We readily saw the raids and the arrests as both the evidence and the proof of what we had always suspected; and that is that the judiciary, the last hope of the poor and the deprived, is also the ultimate whip in the hands of the rich, the influential and the powerful. The former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mr. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, did decry the rot in the system on more than one occasion.

We go to the temple of justice because it is the only institution with the power to enforce the protection of the wretched of the earth from being trampled under foot by the rich and the powerful. But when the temple of justice dispenses justice largely with unclean hands, the temple of justice is polluted. When a judge delivers judgment that makes a first year law student wince, you need no further proof that robes alone do not honest men and women make of those who sit on the bench. I am not saying anything new when I assert that anyone who has had the poor luck of taking his case to court would easily testify to the fact that money has the power to bend the truth and throw mud in the face of justice – in the court. It is just as well, I think, that justice is reputedly blind. But methinks it is not always deaf to the sound of you-know-what.

We thought that the DSS and the EFCC had given us proof positive of the reeking corruption in the temple of justice. Sadly, the men and women they grabbed are not the rotten face of the judiciary. They goofed; so did we. Their proven innocence is no proof either that the temple of justice is clean. Lawyers and litigants know the cash-and-carry judges. They are on the take still.

The anti-graft war is necessarily a public war. It is a sentimental war too. And that, I think, is what is fundamentally wrong with the current strategy for its prosecution. The chairman of the EFCC knows the public expects him to perform. He gives an account of his performance with the bells and whistles that attend high profile arrests. He receives public applause. But public applause misleads and is an unreliable judge of institutional performance. This was the strategy adopted by the pioneer chairman of the commission, Assistant Inspector General of Police, Nuhu Ribadu. All his successors found his act difficult to follow, hence the rise and fall of EFCC in the estimation of the people.

What is important, I should think, is not the number of arrests but the number of people who receive their comeuppance for their crimes against our nation and our common interests. To do that requires a fundamental change in the strategy. I put forward the advice of Justice Mahmud Mohammed for the consideration of the anti-graft bodies: prosecute on the basis of evidence, not of arrests. The acting chairman of the commission, Ibrahim Magu, said last week that the commission secured 340 convictions for various offences in only six months. Impressive number. But who were these people? Unknown quantities, that is who.



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