Whenever Nigerians assemble to discuss the problematic topic of corruption and how it has damaged our moral ethos, numerous investment opportunities, national economic development, and the country’s profile in the international community, you can be sure the conversation will be impassioned and vigorous. Corruption is a topic that generates interest among many citizens. Interestingly, while many people say they have expertise in the topic, and others identify themselves as victims of corruption, no one ever admits publicly they are corrupt.
Opinions are divided about the extent to which corruption has infiltrated all sections of our society. Last week when the topic was examined at a two-day workshop titled “National Dialogue on Corruption” that was arranged by the Office of the Vice President in association with the Presidential Advisory Committee Against Corruption (PACAC), different speakers adopted different positions on the subject. As a reflection of the extent to which the topic fragmented the speakers, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo and the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Walter Onnoghen, expressed different views in regard to institutions, individuals, and organisations that could be held blameworthy.
Osinbajo spoke in a scholarly manner, pointing out that corruption is endemic in all sections of our society, including the three arms of the government. He said corruption is discernible even in the judiciary. As a former Attorney-General of Lagos State, Osinbajo must know. That meant that many people in Nigeria swim unashamedly in the ocean of corruption. As Osinbajo implied, corruption has become the commonest disease that has eaten deeply into the hearts and bowels of Nigerian citizens.
Chief Justice Onnoghen pointed out the odd situation in which he found himself in the middle of criticisms of the judiciary. He said: “As the head of the Nigerian judiciary, the issue of corruption is a sensitive one. The judiciary finds itself being battered left, right and centre. So, what should the Chief Justice of Nigeria say on occasion like this which will not appear as if it is in defence of his institution or shielding the bad eggs, a few of which I admit exist.”
Having admitted the judiciary is not immaculate, he launched a vigorous defence of the integrity of members of the institution that he leads. He said: “A Nigerian judicial officer is a gentleman. You have gentlemen on that bench. And by the nature of that institution, the judiciary, it is crafted and designed in such a way that a judicial officer can only be seen not heard. Not that he has nothing to say even in defence of himself.”
While Osinbajo and the Chief Justice made their points, it would appear that the defence of the judiciary by the Chief Justice flew very much in the face of reality, particularly in light of disciplinary actions taken against some judges and magistrates in the past two decades. There is no stronger evidence that the judiciary is corrupt than the number of magistrates and high court judges sanctioned by the National Judicial Council (NJC) in the past two decades. Additionally, previous Chief Justices of Nigeria, including prominent members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) had, in various public forums, denounced corruption in the judiciary, as well as the deleterious impact it has had on the administration of justice and the image of the judiciary.
Corruption has blighted the Nigerian judiciary in many ways. That explains why high-ranking members of the judiciary have spoken against that reprehensible behaviour.
I share the views expressed by Osinbajo with regard to the destructive impact of corruption on our society. Osinbajo said at the opening of the two-day event: “Corruption as we all seem to agree, is an existential threat to Nigeria both as a nation and as a viable economic entity… corruption in Nigeria is systemic. It doesn’t matter whether it is the executive arm of government, the judiciary or the legislature, every arm of government is involved in this systemic and life-threatening social anomaly called corruption. So, I think we should leave the finger pointing, because the finger pointing is unhelpful. What is important is that we recognise that there is a major problem here.”
This is a robust, sound, and unimpeachable argument. There is corruption everywhere in our system. The judiciary is not impeccable. You don’t have to wait till a problem stares you in the face before you recognise it as a menace or a threat to the existence and moral foundation of our society.
Improper conduct by judges and magistrates is disquieting. Judges and magistrates who compromise their office must be disciplined. The crooked ones must be separated from innocent members of the bench. Professional transgressions by some judges and magistrates have impacted negatively on the image of the judiciary as a highly respected institution that the less privileged and rich members of our society, as well as men and women, young and old, often approach for even-handed judgment.
Allegations of corruption in the judiciary had been swirling as far back as 2005 and even before then. At that time, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mohammed Uwais, warned light-fingered judges against corrupt practices. At the opening of the All Nigeria Judges Conference in Abuja on Monday, 5 December 2005, Justice Uwais observed that corrupt practices had blemished the character of judges and amplified public misgivings relating to the moral character of members of the judiciary.
Again, in 2006, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Alfa Belgore, expressed concerns about mounting accusations of corruption levelled against judges. In a speech he read in Asaba at the two-yearly conference of all Nigerian judges of the lower courts on 13 November 2006, Justice Belgore cautioned: “As the interpreter of the law, it would be ironic for the judges to be found on the wrong side of the law by being partisan and accepting bribes. The consequences will be serious.”
Similarly, former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Idris Legbo Kutigi, stated forcefully in a speech he presented at the swearing-in of 12 new judges of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, on 4 April 2007: “The judicial power of the federation is vested in the judiciary. We should do justice to all manner of people without fear and favour or intimidation. The adherence to the rule of law is very vital to all agencies of government.”
In the past 12 years, concerns over corruption in the judiciary have continued to grow rather than subside. On Monday, 19 September 2011, the then Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, presented an unsettling speech that very nearly labelled the judiciary as blatantly corrupt.
In a tone and language that seemed like he was reprimanding his peers, Justice Musdapher said unmistakeably: “… it is very important to ensure that those who abuse the privilege of judicial authority are exposed, expunged, banished and punished. I feel it is necessary at this point to strongly advise that those who cannot sustain true allegiance to their judicial oaths and abide by all the demands of the code of conduct for judicial officers to bow out immediately… I urge you to realize that there is no middle ground and no space on the bench for those adjudged to be unworthy arbiters of truth… henceforth there shall be zero tolerance to judicial corruption or misconduct.” He was speaking at a special session of the Supreme Court to commemorate the start of the 2011/2012 legal year.
At the same session in which Justice Musdapher spoke, the then president of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Joseph Bodunrin Daudu, said emphatically there was “a growing perception backed up by empirical evidence that justice is purchasable and it has been purchased on several occasions in Nigeria. We are reaching the point in time where accusations of corruption in the system will be at its loudest.” That was an unprecedented open rebuke, coming from an influential member of the bar.
Surely, the integrity of members of the judiciary has received unflattering evaluations and questions have been raised about the calibre of men and women who sit on the bench. Of course, it is not every member of the judiciary who could be described as corrupt. Far from that judgment. In Nigeria as in other societies, members of the judiciary are held in high esteem. They are revered and highly appreciated because they occupy positions of trust. This is not surprising. Those who interpret the law must live morally admirable lives and hold themselves as role models.
Unfortunately, over the past two decades, some high court judges and magistrates were dismissed, disciplined or suspended because they degraded their high office and traded their professional integrity for financial gratification. Prior to this time, the judiciary was regarded as the emblem of our society’s sense of right and wrong behaviour. The judiciary represented the conscience of the nation. In this context, professional misconduct committed by any judicial officer that enfeebles the righteousness of that institution must be dealt with promptly and forcefully without fear or favour.
This is the time for sweeping reforms in the judiciary. The kind of reforms foreshadowed here are intended to rid the judiciary of corruption and other mendacious practices that have blotted the image of members of that institution. An all-inclusive moral purge of the judiciary must start immediately. And it can only be done not by outsiders but by insiders. Chief Justice Onnoghen has already signalled the start of zero tolerance for corruption in the judiciary. That is a very good beginning, even if the reforms are long overdue.
To tolerate a corrupt judiciary is not an option. The blind cannot lead the blind. If that happens, the leader and the led will all end up in a cavern.