The Judiciary is commonly and rightly referred to as the last hope of the common man. This pre-supposes that it guarantees equal access to Justice and equity; and equally ensures that the rights of citizens are adequately accommodated, and judgements handed down in accordance with the dictates of the law and facts presented to the Court.
The Judiciary can only act as the last hope of the common man where it is independent, well funded, courageous, unbiased and proactive.
Regrettably, this enviable role has not been without some accusing fingers being pointed at the hallowed temple of Justice. A recent survey by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and National Bureau for statistics with the support of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes found thus “Nigerian Courts of law receive the biggest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant” the report stated further “though bribery in the judiciary was less frequent than in many agencies, it required the biggest transactions.”
Honourable Justice Eso recently had cause to lament on happenings at the Election Petition Tribunals where he stated that Judges handling electoral matters become billionaires overnight. This view was corroborated by Maj. Gen. Ishola Williams (Rtd), Chairman of Transparency International (TI) in Nigeria, who claimed that election tribunals were becoming goldmines for Nigerian Judges. He stated thus:
“All the Judges are just using the election tribunals to make money. All those who had gone through election tribunals are Millionaires today. I challenge them to say NO.”
Chief Afe Babalola, SAN, Chairman Chartered Institute of Arbitrators of Nigeria lamented thus:
“Time was when a lawyer could predict the likely outcome of a case because of the facts, the law and the brilliance of the lawyers that handled the case. Today, things have changed and nobody can be sure. Nowadays, politicians would text the outcome of the judgement to their party men before the judgement is delivered and prepare their supporters ahead of time for celebration.
The above scenario presents a sad commentary on the perception of the judiciary by Nigerians.
The Role of the judiciary in combating corruption in Nigeria
There is no doubt that corruption is the biggest and most embarrassing challenge facing Nigeria today. It is indeed a serious threat on our economic and democratic development. His Lordship, Hon. Justice Dahiru Musdapher (CJN) (as he then was) stated correctly at the SERAP Roundtable on 9th February 2012, in his keynote address thus:
“When the rule of law is weak, corruption will remain a nagging problem.
“Corruption in the Justice sector is a keystone to corruption throughout society. Without an honest criminal justice system, the wealthy, especially the corrupt, can escape the consequences of their crimes. Such impunity reduces the perceived cost of corruption. The risk that corrupt activity will result in imprisonment and accompanying public humiliation is minimal. The gains from corruption are therefore not discounted and there is thus little reason beyond personal integrity not to engage in corrupt acts.”
Metaphorically, a corrupt judge has been described as more harmful to the society than a man who runs amok with a dagger in a crowded street. The latter as you know can be restrained physically. But the former deliberately destroys the moral foundation of society and causes incalculable distress to individuals while still answering “honourable”.
From the foregoing, it can be discerned that Nigerians are indeed concerned about the judiciary in carrying out its role as the bastion of hope for the common man.
There is no doubt that the fight against corruption in Nigeria is a collective one and all hands must be on deck to win the battle. As the saying goes, “it takes two to tango.” Where there is no “offeror” they can be no “offeree”. In other words, corruption persists and reigns supreme in Nigeria because persons in authority have either been corrupted by the system or by the people they come in contact with. If the people unanimously choose not to influence the work of public officers, indeed, the corrupt public officers cannot continue to operate without being exposed. Therefore, there are “corruptors” and “corruptees”. But, the judiciary plays a pivotal and central role in the fight against corruption because:
(i) By virtue of the provisions of the Constitution, all cases are referred to the court for adjudication. Invariably all corruption allegations, investigations and cases are referred to court.
(ii) By virtue of Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution, only the Courts and Tribunals established by law are vested with powers to adjudicate between the State (prosecution) and the individual (accused) and to determine the culpability or otherwise of an accused person in any corruption case.
(iii) No body or institution can condemn a man on the basis of any investigation or findings without recourse to the Court or Tribunal established by Law. To do otherwise will be a negation of the cherished principle of the Rule of Law which is the foundation of our democracy.
(iv) Any findings, decision, determination or pronouncement of the Court on the fate of an individual in respect of any particular allegation is final. The individual concerned may in subsequent proceedings plead autrefois acquit or convict.
Based on the foregoing, it is therefore imperative to posit that the factors that influence the judiciary’s ability to perform its role in combating corruption in Nigeria can be summarized as follows:
(i) Independence: For the Judiciary to play its role in the fight against corruption it must be independent and free from any form of interference or influence in terms of funding, political manipulation e.t.c. This will enable Judges to determine cases freely and competently on the basis of facts presented before them and nothing more.
(ii) The Courts must ensure that cases bordering on corruption are dealt with expeditiously to instill public confidence in the fight against corruption. To this end, the court must ensure that recourse to unnecessary technicalities are avoided or outrightly rejected
(iii) Competence of Judges: The fight against corruption will indeed be more effective when Judges are properly trained, better motivated, disciplined and committed to duty. The need for Judges to be better trained to handle (corruption) cases cannot be over-emphasised. Thus, his Lordship SAULAWA, JCA, stated this fact clearly in a paper delivered at the Commonwealth Legal Education Association Conference on congestion of cases in Nigerian Courts on 28th -30th November 2000 thus:
“It is not in doubt that the nature of the office and functions of a judge call for a very high sense of duty, probity, integrity and transparency, as such any Judge so appointed, without possessing the above fundamental qualities, is no doubt bound to be a clog and obstacle to justice. As someone would say, “a Judge with little or no learning can be a most dangerous clog in the administration of justice.”
(iv) Incorruptibility of the Bench: A corrupt bench can only worsen the fight against corruption. For the Judiciary to position itself properly against the fight against corruption, it must first purge itself of corruption. It will be a very sad day indeed for the court which is seen as the bastion of hope of the common man to stand as an “accused” in the fight against corruption. This indeed will signify the end of everything.
(v) The prosecuting agencies must provide proper training for prosecutors of corruption cases.
(vi) The courts must be properly equipped with modern facilities to be able to fast-track the determination of corruption related cases and indeed understand the modus operandi of persons accused of cases of corruption.
The fight against corruption as stated earlier is a collective one, and all hands must indeed be on deck in order to ensure a corrupt-free Nigeria. The court, which is the final arbiter in our criminal Justice system, but be well-positioned and prepared, both intellectually and otherwise, to handle the great challenge posed by the ever changing dynamics and face of corruption. It must first purge and cleanse itself of all forms of corruption and discharge its duties without fear or favour.
Mr. Oyetibo presented this paper at the Serap Media Roundtable on Magistrate Courts Ethics, integrity, and improving Citizens’ Access to Justice.