NIGERIA: Cleansing the Judiciary

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Last week, the National Judicial Council (NJC) took yet another bold step in the bid to salvage the judiciary and enforce discipline amongst members when it wielded the big stick against Justice Abubakar Talba of the High Court, Federal Capital Territory (FCT). The rescue mission championed by the Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar appears to be taking shape

The National Judicial Council (NJC) under the leadership of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, last week, recorded another feat when it wielded the big stick against Justice Abubakar Talba of an Abuja High Court, after he was found guilty of handing an “unreasonable” sentence to a self-confessed pension thief, John Yakubu Yusufu. The council suspended the embattled judge for one year without any form of remuneration within the period.

Talba had on January 28, directed Yusufu to pay a fine of N750,000, shortly after the accused person who was a former Deputy Director in the pension office, admitted before the trial court that he conspired with six other civil servants and stole about N23billion from the Police Pension Fund.

Though section 309 of the Criminal Procedure Act, CPA, upon which the accused person was charged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), gave the court the choice of sentencing the accused to a maximum of two years imprisonment with a fine, however, Justice Talba, used his discretion and ordered Yusufu to only pay a fine and go home.

Just before that, the council had recommended the compulsory retirement of Justice Charles Efang Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Justice Thomas Naron of the Plateau State High Court of Justice. The two judges were found guilty of professional misconduct.
Archibong was recommended for compulsory retirement for dismissing grievous charges against an accused person, the former Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank Plc, Mr. Erastus Akingbola, without even taking his plea. He, thereafter, refused to release the Certified True Copy of his ruling to lawyers in the case.

The judge was also accused of making unfounded and caustic comments on the professional competence of some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and also issued bench warrants on some officials of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at a time that the counsel who was directed to serve them had filed an affidavit to the effect that he had not been able to serve them the contempt application.
There were also said to be glaring procedural irregularities in some of his decisions, which queried his understanding of the law and court procedures.

On his part, Justice Naron was recommended for retirement because the NJC found that there were constant and regular voice calls and exchange of text messages between him and Mr. Kunle Kalejaiye, one of the lead counsels to former governor of Osun State, Mr. Olagunsoye Oyinlola, during the hearing of the petition brought against Oyinlola’s election by Governor Rauf Aregbesola, at the Osun State governorship election Petitions Tribunal.

This was contrary to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officials of the Federal Republic of Nigeria vide Section 292 (1) (b) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.

Naron, thereafter, dismissed Aregbesola’s petition and declared Oyinlola the validly elected winner of the 2007 governorship election in Osun State. His judgment was, however, overturned by the Court of Appeal, which declared Aregbesola the rightful winner of the election. The two judges had since been suspended from their duties.

Ironically, all the offences the two judges were accused of were committed long before Mukhtar assumed office, yet she had the courage to act.

It is common knowledge that before Mukhtar assumed office in 2012 as the CJN, the judiciary was literally sliding into the abyss. Everyone, including its members, knew this admitted it. Both in the courtrooms and outside nobody was oblivious of what was going on.
Judgments and orders were traded like household needs in the open market or corner shops. Hundreds of millions and even billions of naira exchanged hands between litigants and judges. High profile criminals evaded justice with questionable judgments that amounted to a slap on the wrist. Judgments and rulings were sometimes not only biased and incongruous, but ridiculous even to the common man. Serious cases were flippantly dismissed; ridiculous restraining orders and sentences that made the judiciary a laughing stock became commonplace.

But the question was: “Who will bell the cart?”
It was just in time that President Goodluck Jonathan nominated Justice Mukhtar as the new CJN. By this position, she was not only going to head the courts but other powerful judicial bodies such as the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC), National Judicial Council (NJC) and the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC). This again threw a lot of people off guard, especially those who had thought that the president would deviate from the tradition of appointing the most senior justice of the Supreme Court the CJN into that office.

The NJC which is the constitutional body responsible for the discipline of erring judges had long been in existence, but somewhat ineffective. No matter the petition written to the council on the misconduct of a judge, it usually ended up a naught.

Today, however, the reverse is the case. The fear of the NJC under Mukhtar is the beginning of wisdom, albeit for the smart ones. Judges are very conscious and sensitive to their jobs for fear of being petitioned to the council. They know that once a complaint is lodged against them, the body begins investigation almost immediately.

To this set of people, it was a deviation from the norm of an office that had been occupied strictly, by the male folk since 1958 without any remarkable feat other than mere service. This, therefore, propped up the question: “Can a woman make a difference or succeed where the male folk failed?
Gradually, before the very eyes of Nigerians, she has begun to prove to be the most courageous to have attained the position in recent time. So far, she has shown that what a man can do, a woman can do even better.

Since assuming office, Mukhtar has remained consistent about her disposition to anomalies that are tilted towards embarrassing the judiciary. At the inauguration of the 2012 biennial conference for judges, she reiterated her stance when she warned against corruption on the bench and vowed to fish out corrupt judges and administer appropriate sanctions on them.

She told the judges at the conference: “I urge that you reform yourselves and allow yourselves to be reformed by amending your conduct that brings dishonour to the judiciary as an institution.”

Even when she fielded questions at the Senate before her confirmation in July 2012, Mukhtar admitted that there was corruption in the courts, but vowed to lead by example in stamping it out.

Just a fortnight ago, she expressed concern over the quality of judgments emanating from various courts in the country, and insisted that public confidence and trust in the judiciary has nosedived. Speaking at the opening ceremony of the 2013 refresher course for judicial officers, organised by the National Judicial Institute (NJI), in Abuja, the CJN noted that “public uproar or placard-carrying scenario against the judgment of a court of record is not to the credit of the judiciary as an arm of government.”

She added that “where therefore a judge is found to be complicit in the writing and delivery of a judgment, the NJC, as the constitutional regulatory body, will not hesitate to wield the big stick.

“A judge should write in a simple and unambiguous manner such that it leaves no one in doubt as to what the judgment has addressed. A judgment should meet the justice of the matter or controversies between the contending parties. It is certainly not good for a judgment to be capable of more than one interpretation otherwise why was the judge called upon to intervene in the first place?”
As the CJN, the occupant of the office also heads other powerful judicial bodies such as the Legal Practitioners’ Privileges Committee (LPPC); National Judicial Council and Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC). But none of those before Mukhtar could not take the bull by the horn and clean the rot in the system.

Knowing full well that the judiciary is so critical to the sustenance of justice and democracy and should not be brought into disrepute, Mukhtar has not left anyone in doubt that the two years she would spend as the CJN would be remarkable.

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