The immutable words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa come alive at this point of our national life. He said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Sages don’t just speak; they pick out the wisdom from their wealth of experience. Tutu had his best days during the apartheid era in his country. He sure knows what injustice is and can also tell about disorder and their possible causes. If we are to draw something from Tutu’s position, it is possible to hazard a guess that one of the things that precipitate societal disorder could be injustice bothering on maltreatment and denial of citizens’ rights. If we would tell ourselves the truth, our nation has been operating at the boiling point since independence. Rather than take measures to reverse the trend we have instead continued to add fuel to the fire and foolishly hoping the inferno would die off. This is foolishness of the first order.
In the last decade, and particularly in the last three years, the leadership class has led the rest of us to behave in manners and ways that are not in tandem with our collective desire to build a nation out of the country called Nigeria. We keep pulling the thread that binds us together and in some instances pick weapons desiring to cut it off, perhaps unaware of the consequences of such actions. We have done so several times as I observed earlier. We are lucky it took providence to extricate ourselves from such situations. The natural thing would have been that our experiences should have taught us the need to do things far better the next time, but unfortunately that hasn’t been the case. We love politics and politics is good, and that is because politics is at the root of the other things that should be in place, be it economy, socio-cultural issues and other things that are essential to making life abundant for the people. But the bad thing here is that we play negative politics with and in everything, and that is proving dangerous. It is tearing the bonds that hold us together, creating fear and tension and retarding the wheel of progress.
Few weeks ago our president who came to power on a platform of change, let his hammer fall on the judiciary. He went for their jugular. He found an alleged crime and pronto the Chief Justice of the Federation, the country’s Chief Interpreter of the Law, was arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal, to be tried for crimes that were yet to be very clear to all including those arraigning him. We have heard about non-full disclosure just as we have been told of maintaining domiciliary accounts running into millions, to owning more than 50 houses in different parts of the country. Those who raked up the petitions and allegations, and those who undertook the arraignment, from the look of things had thought their venture was a picnic. They had expected that at the shout of ‘thief-thief-thief’ as has been usual, a citizen would have dropped his cherished ‘properties’ and scampered for safety. But unfortunately for them the enemies of Nigeria and subverts of due process met this time a well-educated person, full of courage, who not only knows his rights but is willing to take it to the full, at least in this circumstance to prove his honour.
That was where the bubble began to burst. Those on evil mission lost their patience, and that is understandable. In every evil work time is always of essence. Justice Walter Onnoghen had rightly challenged his arraignment in court and the matter was yet to begin when the presidency desperately stooped low to defy constitutional provisions and even a valid order from the Appeal Court to declare the Chief Justice suspended. They did not stop there; they went further, on their own accord without any reference to the National Judicial Council to choose and appoint a new chief justice on acting capacity. This issue has been on and Nigerians have had a lot to say on it irrespective whether one is a lawyer or not. The nature is enough to raise concerns and it has indeed provoked not only concerns but deep resentment and revulsion. In spite of few voices of support any discerning observer would agree that a majority of Nigerians have condemned the development and tagged it ‘a coup against constitutional governance.’ In fact, the issue is threatening to boil over.
Last week, the NJC woke up from sleep and told a surprised country that it was holding an emergency meeting over the matter. After the meeting the NJC said it had issued a query to the Chief Justice and the justice who was hastily sworn in to replace him, about petitions against them, which they were to respond to within seven days, and that a similar petition against the chairman of the Code of Conduct Tribunal had been referred to the Judicial Service Commission. The intervention raises many questions. The first is that it came very late, and the lateness in this instance is of huge significance given the centrality of judiciary in the safeguard of the society. The other two arms of government, the executive and the legislature can be desecrated. Bad as it is, the nation can recover and trudge on, we have seen that in the past when the military paralyzed activities in the executive and the legislature, we survived. But it is not the same with the judiciary. When aura of invincibility of the judiciary is broken and the temple of justice desecrated and we cause the men sitting at the temple of justice to operate under a state of perpetual fear, the society is doomed. This is elementary lesson to teach.
It is for this reason and more that citizens expected prompt reaction from the NJC, first, by berating the executive for voiding the constitution, destroying the process and embarking on their own way. Early response from the NJC would have been reassuring. Secondly, they would have in strong terms demanded that the president rescind his misguided action of suspending the Chief Justice and then to hand over the matter to NJC, which is the first step in the discipline of any judicial officer, the chief justice inclusive. Now the above anomalies are still in existence while the NJC wants to do its job, but the ugly thing in all of this is that of all the dramatis personae involved in this ugly drama, only the chief justice would have to fight back carrying the baggage of a punishment; this is against fair hearing. It will seem the tide is against him already.
I will not want to pre-empt the outcome of NJC’s intervention. But whatever it is, let it be that the hands of subverts of the system are not strengthened in any way. Nobody should fall on account of national interest, rather let it be to all according to their deeds. Ask most Nigerians today, they would tell you they are not sure on what account is the Chief Justice being harassed, humiliated and prosecuted. Is operating a domiciliary account an offense? Or having money and properties an offense? If a man has so much wealth, how do you ascertain whether it is genuinely earned or proceeds of corruption? Until duly investigated and convicted you cannot. The truth is that suspension is becoming a tool for public officers with dictatorial tendencies. When they know they do not have a chance they take the shortcut of suspending. We must spare the judiciary this agony. Non-full disclosure is still arguable whether it is an offense or not, especially in the light of the rules of Code of Conduct Tribunal Section 3, which stipulates when a subject admits omission in writing, the case ends there. The ball is in the court of the NJC and posterity is calling.