IT is not usual or commonplace to see the bastion of justice and the highest court of the land quaking, trembling and quivering. Remember the “Rumble in the Jungle” of the Mohammed Ali vs. George Foreman in the epic heavy weight boxing Championship in Kinshasha, Zaire, in 1974? The Supreme Court had more than that. Ali was stinging like a bee, using the rope-a-dope tactic. The apex court Justices doe just that.
How did this happen? A slumbering country had woken up on Monday, 27th June, 2022, to the shocking news of the resignation of the former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Mohammad. The Jurist said he was doing so on health grounds. The resignation came about 18 months ahead of his official retirement date of December 31, 2023. Tongues wagged. Because the resignation, though predicated on health grounds, came in just barely two weeks after fourteen (14) serving Justices of the Supreme Court had frontally confronted the CJN over the abysmally poor welfare of Justices of the Supreme Court. He had denied the allegations through Ahuraka Isah, his spokesperson. Irrespective of Justice Tanko’s reason (s) for suddenly throwing in towel prematurely, let me state here that the step he took constituted a reinvigorating breath of fresh air that blew across the dark crevices of the nation’s judicial landscape and democratic space.
The 14 Justices in their “Book of Lamentations”, had insisted that no past administration since the birth of democracy in 1999 had ever treated Justices as shabbily as the then Chief Justice of Nigeria did. This apparent vote of no confidence on Justice Tanko is the first time that such would occur in 58 years of the history of the Supreme Court. Is it that they were crying wolf? Had they tried, but failed, in using inbuilt internal conflict-resolution mechanism in settling the matter? I do not know. Or, do you?
MY EARLIER INTERVENTION ON THIS BROUHAHA
I had earlier written in support of the Justice’s cause,course and protest. Interalia, I had said (http://mikeozekhomeschambers.com/supreme-court-justices-deserve-more/; https://www.blueprint.ng/supreme-court-ozekhome-okays-justices-protest-over-poor-pay/ <%22>):
“What I expected the CJN to have done is to have balmed their oozing bruises; bandaged their bleeding economic sores and say ‘’Ok, I have heard you loud and clear. I am going to take up your complaints and champion your cause before the executive and legislative arms of government, arms that have turned themselves into rampaging bulldogs. As the head of the Judiciary which is the third arm of the government, I will make sure that you have more allocation, your welfare enhanced and your life made better.’’ Sikena.
“It was Alexander Hamilton in his Federalist paper number 78, who once said the Judiciary is the weakest of the three arms of government; and that it has neither purse, nor sword to enforce its judgments.
“Are we going to say that the Judiciary should remain forever in doldrums, trampled upon by the two other arms of government? I think not. When I read about the entire annual allocation of the Judiciary, I wept. My heart bled. The entire allocation is like what some governors in this country simply pocket as security votes and walk away as if nothing has happened. The allocation is less than ¼ of what some ministries have in this country; and we have more than 30 ministries in Nigeria. Yet, we are talking about the head of the whole third arm of government – the Supreme Court. Yet we expect these Justices to be aliens from another planet, maybe from Saturn, Mars, Uranius, Neptune, Pluto, Mercury, Venus, or Jupiter, so that they won’t be corrupt. We expect them to act like Archangel Michael or Angel Gabriel, who must not touch money with a ten-foot pole, even when they are hungry and starved.
“So, when we are crying that some Judges are corrupt, we also have to look at it from the angle of the rotten milieu within which they operate. Whilst not advocating for corruption (God forbid; very far from it, because I believe that any corrupt element within the judiciary should be kicked out and dismissed after proper investigation and trial), I also believe that we must not allow a system where corruption becomes so attractive as to form a clear and present danger and become a fundamental objective and directive principle of state policy. We have a proverb in my language, which translates to say that you must keep away the white cloth from the palm oil, just the same way you must keep the palm oil away from the cloth. If you bring an insect-infected piece of firewood into your house, you have requested for a visitation of a colony of lizards. So, you must not complain when you see a colony of lizards descend on you because you asked for it.
“If you starve Judges and Justices, and you make them believe that they don’t matter and will never have a house to retire to, and some justices of the Supreme Court, in spite of the danger inherent in their job are renting houses inside towns, living amongst people, some of whom have been tried and jailed by these same Judges and Justices, then you are begging corruption to embrace them. You are not even giving them enough protection and security.
“The society must not appear to be telling the Justices to either take it or leave it; to either kow-tow and agree with their present perilous, impoverished, sorry situation, or they resign. It should never be like that. I expect the CJN to engage them more and pacify them. I want to believe that before they wrote that letter, they must have complained severally, and serially quietly in secret, in the underground, without being heard, or their complaints being remedied. That must have been why they went so formal by writing that historic letter.”
IS THE JUDICIARY NOW NAKED?
No. the Judiciary has not been left naked, because the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Olukayode Ayoola, has since been sworn in as the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria in line with section 231(4) of the 1999 Constitution. He will act for three months pending when, cateris paribus,he will be made the substantive CJN, in accordance with section 230(1) thereof.
JUSTICE TANKO MOHAMMAD DID THE RIGHT THING BY RESIGNING
Whatever reasons Justice Tanko Mohammad had for resigning (whether due to poor health as he said, or due to the ricocheting effect of the protest letter by 14 Justices of the Supreme Court which greatly embarrassed the Judiciary and country), the important thing is that he must be praised for his courage, masculinity and wise counsel in honourably resigning. Resignation from office is a very scarce commodity in this part of the world, where public officials hold on to office no matter the odious perception by the Nigerian people. Justice Mohammad will therefore be remembered in history as a CJN who walked away from his lucrative office, whilst the ovation was loudest, albeit, being subjected to gradual muffling. He has entered the pantheon of the few historical figures who threw in the towel whilst in office.
A PEEP INTO HISTORY
As an historian and Archivist, I love situating my discourse in historical perspectives. It helps to open up the topic under discussion.Let us therefore take a look at history to see some instances of Justices and government officials who had stepped down from office for the greater good of the people.
In 1795, John Jay, a foremost Federalist, resigned as the US Chief Justice, to become the Governor of New York.
In 1800, Oliver Ellsworth, US Chief Justice, had to resign on grounds of illness and unpopularity, after negotiating the Convention of 1800.
In 1913, Woodrow Wilson resigned as the Governor of New Jersey to become the US President.
In 1955, Winston Churchill, the Second World War hero, resigned as the Prime Minister of the UK due to poor health, but remained in the House of Commons.
In 1963, Harold MacMillan resigned as Prime Minister of UK, after the profumo scandal (the third consecutive resignation of a Prime Minister under the watch of the present Queen Elizabeth II).
In 1967, Gamal Abdal Nassar of Egypt resigned as President, UAR. However, he later retracted his resignation. Sweet power, always an aphrodisiac and intoxicating liquor!!.
In 1969, Charles De Gaulle of France resigned following a defeat in the French referendum.
In 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as President after the infamous watergate scandal that rocked US history.
In 1981, Hussein Onn resigned as Prime Minister of Malaysia due to poor health.
In 1984, Pierre Trudeau, the then Prime Minister of Canada, retired from politics due to unpopularity.
Bill Clinton in 1992, resigned as the Governor of Arkansas to become the United States President.
Sylvio Berlusconi resigned as the Prime Minister of Italy in 1995.
In 1997, Zhan Videnor resigned with his entire government as Prime Minister of Bulgaria.
John Major as Prime Minister of the UK in 1997 resigned as leader of the conservative party.
Tony Blair, as Prime Minister of the UK, stepped down in 2007 as leader of the labour party.
It was the turn of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011 when he threw in the towel resigned due to the Egyptian revolution.
In 2016, David Cameron resigned as the UK Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party due to the Brexit vote which allowed the United Kingdom to leave the European Union.
THE HUGE TASK BEFORE JUSTICE OLUKAYODE ARIWOOLA
Justice Ariwoola was one of the 14 Justices who had protested to Justice Tanko Mohammed about the sorry state of Supreme Court Justices. He therefore obviously knows where the shoe pinches, and where the roof leaks. He has now been given the opporunity to become the change agent he can decide to be. Therefore, the task ahead of the learned Justice is mountainous, but not unconquerable. He has to distinguish himself from past Supreme Court administrations, the last of which he joined other Justices to frown at. He has to give Nigerians something refreshing different and new, which they will be happy about, amidst the failures of the present government. He must change the narrative of modern-day Nigerian leaders who only think for them, themselves and theirs alone. Yes, leaders whose principles of life centre on I, me and myself.
Justice Ariwoola must understand that public confidence in the Judiciary has waned tremendously.It has hit rock-bottom. The Judiciary has almost lost its significance and relevance as the third arm of government, without which the country cannot course forward. Consequently, there is the need for urgent reforms and rebuilding of public confidence in battered and tattered house of justice. The surgical operation is the urgency of yesterday. Not one of today or tomorrow.
The first task is for Justice Ariwoola to demand for an urgent review of Justices and Judges’ salaries,emoluments and welfare packages. This is crucial because the impartiality and fairness of the justice system begins with the Judges themselves. A positive review of their salaries and welfare packages would significantly curb perceived situations of bribery, corruption and cases of selling justice to the highest bidder.
The next task for the cerebral grey- boarded Justice is to ensure total independence of the Judiciary. The judiciary needs its independence, not in words, but in deed; to be able to freely exert itself on matters, both national and grassroots, without fear or favour. The judiciary must never be a mere toothless bulldog and appendage of the Executive. Though often regarded as the weakest the three arms of government, this was never the intention for the law makers. The judiciary must advocate and insist on its own budget and complete control of its own financial affairs, without interference from the Executive or Legislative arms of government.
There should also be an oversight in the manner in which the Judges dispense justice. Aside from the overwhelming backlog of cases due to gross shortage of Judges, manual handling of cases and the numerous suits being filed daily, the issue of forum-shopping, judge-shopping and refusal by Judges to hear urgent cases for political reasons further add to the slow dispensation of justice. Therefore, there ought to be supervisory oversight in the way and manner Judges handle their cases. The notion of Judges being the lord and master of their courts should be cast into the garbage heap of history where it rightly belongs. A new era of checks and balances of Judges by a review and supervisory committee should be ushered in immediately. The Supreme Court and other superior courts should allow a situation where their judgments are subjected to rigorous public scrutiny, incisive academic review and fair criticism by intellectuals,the academia and members of the public. This will keep them on their toes.
Of course, it follows from this recommendation, that there is also the need to strengthen the recruitment process by which Judges are appointed. There must be provision of incentives to encourage applications from high-heeled private legal practitioners, including SANs, for positions on the Bench. Justices Augustin Nnamani, Chukwudifu Oputa and Teslim Olawole Elias, are such examples. They emerged as some of the best Jurists ever on the Nigerian Bench. Public confidence in a free, fair and impartial judiciary can only be promoted when the when the recruitment process itself is fair and transparent. This process must be subjected to the time-tested principles of transparency, accountability and public scrutiny.
It is now common knowledge that some staff of the Supreme Court registry deliberately sits on cases they do not want heard, while fast-tracking other preferred ones. This trend must be halted immediately. The new acting CJN should call for all existing files, and he will be shocked as to how some old political cases have been shelved away to gather dust, while some fresh ones are being given accelerated hearing. I am a victim of this unwholesome practice, where I have been forced to write reminder letters for a mere assignment (for hearing) of a sensitive political case filed nearly 3 years ago. Yet,some new ones filed over a year later had since been heard and disposed of. There is the perception that huge money is involved in this unwholesome practice. Perception is reality. Justice Ariwoola should timeously act to stop this administrative rot.
If these few recommendations are put in place by Justice Ariwoola, the Judiciary will surely take a turn for the better. I do appreciate that Rome was not built in a day, and that the reforms in the Judiciary cannot happen overnight. However, proactive and prompt steps in ensuring quick dispensation of justice would quicken such reforms and drive the Judiciary towards the right direction. This, would definitely make Justice Ariwoola’s legacy one not to be forgotten in a hurry. Justice is rooted in confidence. And when that evaporates, then we will experience a recession into the Hobbesian state of nature where life was short, brutish, solitary and nasty, occurs. May God forbid.
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