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Purging the judiciary

LAST week, many eminent Nigerians from all walks of life rose in defence of the judiciary following the invasion of the homes of some senior judges and their arrest by members of the State Security Service (SSS). While not disputing the pervasiveness of corruption in the judiciary, they pointed out that the due process of the law must be followed in punishing errant judges. Some of the affected judges have since stated their own sides of the story. But Nigerians are understandably still worried by the goings-on in the judiciary.

Happily, contrary to expectations of the usual slap on the wrist, the National Judicial Council (NJC) pleasantly surprised many critical observers when it recommended the sacking of two judges who were found wanting in the discharge of their duties and ordered the arrest and prosecution of another. Hitherto, corrupt judges were just asked to go on mere retirement whenever they were found to have dipped their fingers in the jar of sleaze, enjoying their ill-gotten wealth during retirement. Under the chairmanship of the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the NJC suspended from office with immediate effect, the Presiding Justice of the Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya; Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice I.A Umezulike and Justice Kabiru .M. Auta of the High Court of Justice, Kano State. According to a statement issued by its Acting Director of Information, Mr Soji Oye, Auta was to be handed over to the Assistant Inspector General of Police Zone 1, Kano, for prosecution.

The NJC took the landmark decision at its 78th meeting on September 29 after due consideration of the petitions against the three judges before it. It found that Justice Tsamiya met with the petitioner who did him in on three occasions in his residence in Sokoto, Abuja and Owerri. On each occasion, he demanded the sum of N200 million to influence the Court of Appeal panel in Owerri or risk losing the case. In the case of Justice Umezulike, he delivered judgement in a suit on March 9, 2015, about 126 days after addresses were adopted, contrary to the constitutional provision of 90 days.

Justice Umezulike also reportedly ordered the arrest of one Mr. Peter Eze after the matter involving him was amicably resolved and judgement entered on the terms of settlement.  Again, in a speech delivered to the Eastern Bar Forum on March 4, 2016, Justice Umezulike made uncomplimentary remarks about the petitioner, using vulgar language. He also received a  N10 million donation from one Prince Arthur Eze at a book launch, during the pendency of two cases in his court in which he (Eze) had vested interest.

The case of Justice Auta was unbelievable. According to the NJC, he received bribe of N125 million through his Personal Assistant, Abdullahi Bello, ostensibly to assist a newly appointed CJN to secure accommodation, while the petitioner would in turn be rewarded with contracts by the said CJN. He then facilitated a meeting between the petitioner and a lady who introduced herself as the purported CJN in a Prado Jeep, escorted by an armed police officer in a hotel in Kaduna, later  making part payments of $11, 000 and N16 million to the petitioner and undertaking to pay the balance before the commencement of the Fact Finding Committee set up by the NJC.

Any society is as functional as its criminal justice system. The system has evidently gone to seed in Nigeria for quite a while. We recall with indignation how the revered late Justice of the Supreme Court, Kayode Eso, was strident about the fact that billionaire judges had polluted the temple of justice. The investigations conducted by the NJC have lent credence to the horrid and ignoble development.   The conduct of the indicted judges has without doubt stripped them of the honour and dignity which once belonged to their respected profession and statuses, dumping them in the pit of reproach and shame along with criminals and outlaws. The NJC should have been doing this consistently to rid the judiciary of the unwholesome and undeserving elements who contributed to the sorry pass that the country has unfortunately come to.

It is also instructive that although corruption in the judiciary is pervasively evil in all matters, the particular type that has arguably yielded immense wealth to corrupt judges has been the endorsement of electoral fraud at election tribunals. This puts unworthy people in public office in the country, thus jeopardizing the political destiny of the country and robbing the people of their future. These are grave, criminal acts for which those convicted in saner climes languish in jail for very long durations.

If the self cleansing exercise embarked upon by the NJC is commendable, its starting so late has been regrettable. We are sadly reminded of those controversial cases in the past for which nobody was eventually sanctioned and we urge the NJC to revisit them and bring the erring judges to book. In any event, the NJC having found its voice now must do more to redeem the sullied image of the judiciary.

To be sure, there are still judges in the judiciary who have not sold their souls to the devil. But it is a case of one bad apple spoiling the barrel. Nigeria needs a dignified and credible judiciary in the bid to emerge as a safe and wholesome society. That is why the battle must begin in earnest.