The recent complaint by14 justices of the Supreme Court, against the retired Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Muhammad, is easily a scandal that is unbefitting to the nation’s apex court and by extension, the judiciary.
The 14 justices, in a letter, confronted Muhammad and accused his office of financial mismanagement, maladministration and insensitivity to the welfare of colleagues at the apex court.
The episode, which was followed shortly by the resignation of the CJN “on health grounds,” is a sad commentary on the justice system, and can further impact negatively on the struggling image of the judiciary and on Nigeria’s democracy in general.
Ordinarily, Supreme Court justices are distant from mundane pursuits; they are somewhat deified and regarded with uncanny veneration because tradition has made them oracles of God since they are harbingers of justice. Thus it becomes very discomforting when the office of the CJN would be dragged out into the open over what millions of Nigerians have had to contend with.
In the letter, the justices complained, like professional unions, about poor accommodation, non-payment of their allowances, poor health facilities, non-provision of Internet facilities to work at home and generally poor working conditions unbefitting their status, the justices turned an internal issue into the familiar national discourse. Sad as this may seem, it is the reality of Nigeria which responsible citizens have been managing. However, in describing the CJN’s administration as “the peak of the degeneration of the court,” “the height of decadence” and “clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude,” this accusation fractures the character of the person in question. It is not only a personal issue but also a revelation that subjects a whole professional institution to ethical scrutiny.
The plight of the justices is worth empathising with, while the CJN deserves sympathy. Complaints coming from the Supreme Court over matters of ‘bread and butter’ or stomach infrastructure are very unusual given the taciturn state of the apex court. It would have taken courage to weather the discomfort associated with complaints. Just like the embarrassment felt by many when the salaries of university professors were made public, Nigerians are coming to terms with the fact that justices of the Supreme Court are not removed from the environment too.
Justice Muhammad deserves some understanding because it is virtually impracticable for any manager to satisfactorily manage a Nigerian establishment in a mismanaged economy and fractured polity like Nigeria. Providentially, the CJN resigned amidst the controversy which itself is the right thing to do irrespective of the reason behind the CJN’s resignation. Although the public brouhaha between the Supreme Court Justices and the CJN was a dent in the image of the Silk, had Justice Muhammad not resigned, had he remained to rough it out with the aggrieved Supreme Court Justices, he would have desecrated the cultic ambience of the apex court and its magisterial enclave beyond reparation.
Indeed it is a common excuse to adduce the prevalent mis-governance and systemic corruption as reasons for moral decadence and inefficiency in management. Nigeria is plagued by wanton economic pillaging, massive unemployment amidst very low economic output, prebendal politics, disregard for law and order and ethnic and religious crises that have overheated the polity. All of these have been overlooked until gradually institutionalised. Given that a system is the creation of people from that environment, the judicial system is the creation of the Nigerian environment.
Furthermore, persons are not mere automatons in an environment; they are actors and creators with roles and structures that make or mar the system. This is why the judiciary, especially the courts, is populated by characters who, by their aspiration and vocation, ought to sanitise and guide the society in consonance with the dictates of right reason. To abdicate such responsibility on the altar of the prevalent systemic contagion is to appear ignorant of the courts’ noble duties and welcome the pestilential influence of shrewd politicians.
In recent times since the over 20 years of this democratic dispensation, the courts have been used by politicians to officially endorse impunity and despicable policies. From controversial election tribunal rulings to outlandish injunctions; from approval of dubious enrichment of politicians to judgments clearly bereft of any whiff of common sense, judges and justices have been instrumental causes of the incipient paralysis signalling Nigeria’s decay. Even when such legitimation is often construed as the law, it flies in the face of public morality, common good and right conduct.
Only a few years ago, the apex court was rattled by the ignominious removal of Justice Onnoghen over controversies on asset declaration. Do the justices recognise the former CJN with regard to the way he succeeded Onnoghen? The scenario that played out should not surprise Nigerians, for it is clear that the systemic decay has touched an erstwhile protected area. The vulnerability of sacred institutions is beginning to surface owing to silence, acquiescence and inaction toward dubious politicking and bad governance.
Judges are appointed by even the worst of rulers for the overall good of society, which also includes the interest of the ruler. Judges represent the last bastion of moral sanity, the custodian of public morality and the hope of the oppressed. Since power has been known to have a dangerous and corrosive effect on leaders’ judgement and action, judges also exist, like the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus, to deploy the law in reining in leaders from the control of despotic tendencies and ineptitude. They can achieve this only when they are independent and with their integrity intact. Anyone aspiring for such role must purge himself/herself of the importance of all kinds of partisanship.
One way of forestalling judicial independence and integrity is to adequately fund the judiciary. In line with global practice, the government should provide adequate resources to enable the judiciary to properly perform its functions. The geometrical increase in the volume of cases along with the trickling appointment of judges is inversely proportional to the level of funding. What has played out at the apex court is a consequence of gradual degeneration in funding from overlooking small issues. This calls for a budget review of the judiciary.
Also, this is the time for the Nigerian Judicial Council (NJC) to rekindle in the system the purifying fire of justice: justice in the system and justice for its own justices. The council needs to push for proper legal education for citizens and judicial officers about the value of the internationally recognised right to a fair trial as a cornerstone of democracy.
Concerning justice for its kin, the NJC should amplify its disciplinary force to restore dignity and reverence to the judiciary. The new CJN Olukayode Ariwoola, as the head of the institution now, has a key role to play to rectify some of the ills indicated in the letter that he partook in signing. He should hit the ground running, and galvanise the NJC to resume with the same vigour. There seems to be bad politicking going on in the court. This is not good for the country.