By Ismail Omipidan
The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Walter Onnoghen took over the leadership of the judiciary at a time many Nigerians consider was trying for the institution.
He was first appointed in an acting capacity and he was not appointed a substantive CJN until after the expiration of his acting tenure, whereas previous CJN got their appointments almost immediately. While previous CJN got their appointments almost immediately, that of Onnoghen was delayed.
Apart from that he took over as CJN shortly after homes of judges including that of Supreme Court justices’ had been raided. The judiciary had never been so embarrassed, not even when the military were at the helms of affairs.
For Onnoghen therefore, becoming the CJN at such a low period in the history of the judiciary meant that, the new CJN had his job cut out for him. The expectation on him was very high.
However, the crisis that heralded the new CJN’s leadership appears to have provided him with a rare opportunity to prove himself not only as a problem solver but as an administrator. And one of the things he did was to avoid joining issues with the executives, since doing otherwise would have sustained the hostility between the two arms.
Interestingly, he also insisted that rule of law must be the basis of engagement with other arms of government. While not opposed to investigating judges and the judiciary for corruption, Onnoghen insisted that rule of law be observed.
And to drive home his point, on November 10, 2016 when he was sworn in as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari, Onnoghen promised to join the fight against corruption and address misconduct in the judiciary. He also promised to introduce changes that would give the nation a befitting judiciary.
He said, “in this state of our development and with your programme, I assure you of the full cooperation of the third arm of government in the continuation of the war against corruption and misconduct in the judiciary.
“I intend to carry on where my predecessors stop, modify certain areas but with the general ultimate gain of having a better judiciary befitting the nation Nigeria.”
Again on March 7, 2017 when he was sworn in as the substantive CJN by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo who then was acting as president, Onnoghen renewed his promise to fight corruption in the judiciary. But he insisted that he would work as CJN in accordance with the rule of law.
He said: “As I stated earlier on the 10th of November, I pledge my loyalty to the Federal Republic of Nigeria. There are three arms of government and these three arms belong to the same government. We should explore areas of cooperation to enable us move the country forward.
“On my part as the head of the judiciary, I assure you that from the past experience, the key to everything in a democratic setting is adherence to the rule of law. There lies the solution to our problems. Let us try to encourage the independence of the judiciary so as to ensure the rule of law. If everyone realises that they are subject to the rule of law and that there are certain things that are tackled according to the rule of law and behave accordingly, it will benefit all of us.”
As an experienced legal practitioner before he was appointed a judge, Onnoghen knew that the bench alone could not resolve the perennial and seemingly intractable challenge of slow pace of trial in the nation’s courts. This, Daily Sun gathered informed his decision to form a committee that comprises not only lawyers and judges but a member of civil society. He named the committee “The National Judicial Council Committee on the Monitoring of Corruption Cases.”
Incidentally, that singular act, many believed is a weapon likely to change the frosty bar and bench relationship. This is so because whatever the solutions that are suggested by the committee would no doubt enjoy a collective ownership of solutions, especially that past effort to address the problem fell short partly because the bench tried to impose its ideas on judicial reform on the bar.
After Justice Ayo Salami (rtd) rejected the chairmanship of the committee, Justice Suleiman Galadima, who recently retired from the Supreme Court, was appointed to replace him. With this initial hitch aside, the committee has since gone to work, as it has since begun sitting.
Among others, it has resolved to produce new practice directions that would fast track the trial of cases involving corruption and financial crimes. As parts of the committee’s decision to engage all stakeholders, it had also concluded plans to meet with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and other agencies with powers to prosecute in furtherance of its mandate.
The practice directions sub-committee of the committee has also commenced a review of various practice directions by leveraging on both local and foreign comparative jurisdictions to meet global best practice.
The committee, after brainstorming on all the pending alleged corruption and financial crime cases submitted to it by the heads of court came to the conclusion that a new practice direction would be issued to judges handling the said cases.
The committee noted that it was imperative that other critical stakeholders buy into the mission of the body, saying that regular updates and advocacy postings on sub-committees’ activities must be a permanent feature of the project.
Many have however criticised the committee as unwieldy because it has 15 members in all, just as others did not like the idea that past presidents of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) were members of the committee.
With 2,306 on-going alleged corruption cases nationwide already submitted to the committee while many chief judges have yet to comply with the CJN’s directives to send such cases to him, it is becoming glaring by the day that the issues involved are multifaceted requiring different experience and expertise.
To facilitate its work, the committee has sub-divided into four sub-committees. The sub-committees are; Practice Directions, Training, Feedback and Engagement, and Awareness.
The committee also divided the country into three zones for ease of monitoring and evaluation of the said cases.
The zones are: Zone A, Abuja FCT, Zone B, Northern Zone and Zone C, Southern Zone. At the last count, Zone A in Abuja has 554 pending alleged cases, Zone B has 347 cases, with Zone C having 1, 405 cases.
While Justice Onnoghen may not be able to solve all the problems facing the judiciary by setting up only a committee to fast-track looters trial, he needs to do more than that. Perhaps, the biggest legacy he could leave behind is to immediately set up an adhoc committee to review the salaries of judiciary workers. These workers are the engine room on which the judiciary depends to deliver an effective justice system.
Sadly however, for too long, they have been left behind. Daily Sun’s investigations reveal that many workers in the judiciary have difficulty paying their rents, thereby making then vulnerable to lawyers who want to circumvent due process. The workers’ housing allowances must be upwardly reviewed.
From all indications, the judiciary needs to be more proactive in its response to the demand of its audience. At present, the reactive nature of the judiciary is no longer serving the interest of the institution. A situation where it wait for judicial officers to commit a corrupt act when it is possible to stop the commission of that act, may not speak well of the institution.
The above fact was re-echoed by some top judicial workers who spoke to Daily Sun. Specifically, one of them noted that “there is the need to establish an inspectorate department in the NJC. The department will in turn give out direct numbers to court workers across the country and to the public to call in to report verifiable acts of judges that violate their codes of conduct. This sound radical, but the crisis in the judiciary requires a radical approach. The judiciary can learn a lesson from the whistle-blowing policy introduced by the executive, borrow from it and with some modification adopt the approach,” the staff who does not want his name in print because he has not been authorised to speak added.