EVIDENTLY embarrassed by the controversies surrounding the flurry of recent conflicting court orders from judges of coordinate jurisdiction in different judicial divisions across the country, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, has summoned six chief judges to an emergency meeting. Those summoned to the meeting, expected to hold this week, are the chief judges of Rivers, Kebbi, Cross River, Anambra, Jigawa and Imo states. A welcome development, it is long overdue to return the temple of justice to the path of rectitude and save the society from anarchy.
According to media reports, the CJs are expected to explain the rationale for the pervasive granting of conflicting ex parte orders in their jurisdictions, especially on suits instituted by members of various political parties.
While the CJs of Imo, Jigawa and Anambra would need to explain the roles of the High Courts in the Anambra governorship election billed for November 6, their counterparts in Rivers, Kebbi and Cross River have some explanations to give on the intractable legal battles involving the Peoples Democratic Party National Chairman, Uche Secondus. In recent weeks, the judges of these High Courts have been seemingly engaged in a rat race to outdo one another in the issuance of ex parte orders, bizarrely, on political happenings outside their jurisdictions. The judiciary, sadly, was brought once more into disrepute by such a heart-rending development. A democracy with a compromised and captured judiciary is a scourge no one needs.
The CJN’s memo, dated August 30, 2021, read in part: “My attention has been drawn to media reports to the effect that some courts of coordinate jurisdiction were granting conflicting ex parte orders on the same subject matter. It has become expedient for me to invite you for a detailed briefing on the development.” The CJN aptly notes that his move is “even more compelling having regard to earlier NJC’s warning to judicial officers on the need to be circumspect in granting ex parte applications.”
Earlier, a furious Chioma Nwosu-Iheme, Justice of the Court of Appeal, Awka Division, Anambra State, had openly declared in court that the judges of the Jigawa and Imo High Courts, alongside the lawyers that filed the cases before them, deserved serious sanctions for failing to recognise their boundaries before admitting offshore cases in their jurisdictions. Nwosu-Iheme’s grouse stemmed from the decision of the Independent National Electoral Commission to list a member of the House of Representatives, Chukwuma Umeoji, instead of Chukwuma Soludo, as the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance in the forthcoming Anambra governorship election, citing an order from a Jigawa State High Court on June 28.
Curiously, it was claimed the existence of the Jigawa High Court order was kept under wraps and not made public until the eve of July 16, when INEC published the list of the contestants. That excluded the former CBN governor, who won the June 23 APGA primary election. Similarly, an Imo State High Court affirmed that Jude Okeke remained the APGA chairman, with Umeoji as the party’s governorship candidate for the election.
The boldness and anger of Nwosu-Iheme are on point. She upbraided Anambra politicians for “going around the country shopping for favourable judgments to facilitate their desperation to participate in the governorship election instead of appearing before courts with territorial jurisdiction to entertain suits on the election.”
Agreeing, the Nigerian Bar Association expressed a similar disgust, by observing with “dismay the unfortunate and recurring trend of contradictory court decisions and orders, especially, among courts of coordinate jurisdiction, typically arising from ex parte applications and almost always in political matters.”
The NBA was particularly displeased with the conduct of its “mostly senior members” in the unsavoury development. It lamented, “Astonishingly, that commitment (to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007) is now being threatened by the conduct of some of our own members, the majority of whom are senior members of the Bar, who continue to yield themselves to be used as willing tools by politicians to wantonly abuse the judicial process.” The body should go beyond its lamentation and mete out commensurate punishment to its members found to have been culpable. That is the way forward.
It is obvious that something more drastic and pragmatic is needed to deal with errant judicial officers in the country to restore the confidence of the masses in the judiciary as the famed last hope of the common man. The CJN should be resolute in handling this matter. There should be a thorough forensic investigation to ensure that any judge found to have been corrupted in the process is recommended to the National Judicial Council for appropriate action. Between 2009 and 2014, the NJC reportedly punished over 64 judges that were found to have compromised the standard of justice in the country. Swiftly punishing erring Judges will serve as a deterrent to others. The odious abuse of the ex parte instrument has gone on for too long. Muhammad and the Olumide Akpata-led NBA should resolve to end this practice by slamming strong sanctions on errant judges and lawyers.
The Consultative Council of European Judges defines corruption of judges “to include dishonest, fraudulent or unethical conduct by a judge to acquire personal benefit or benefit for third parties.” To curb corruption on the Bench, the Council, therefore, recommended the following: “A regulatory framework relating to decisions on judges’ careers; a set of rules, principles and guidelines on the ethical conduct of judges; a robust system for declaring assets; rules concerning recusal and self-recusal of judges; and adequate criminal, administrative or disciplinary penalties for a judge’s corrupt behaviour to enhance transparency and thereby public trust in the judiciary.” That is just it.
Judges should not be spared when they desecrate the temple of justice. No society gains from a compromised judiciary. Unfortunately, corruption appears endemic in the judiciary, like in the other arms of government. A former Supreme Court Justice, the late Kayode Eso, had in 2010 warned that endemic corruption in the judiciary, if left unchecked, could sound the death knell for justice administration and delivery in the country with dire consequences for its democratic governance. This warning bears repeating.
A 2010 report of a survey on crime and corruption in the country, conducted by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and the National Bureau of Statistics, with the support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, was shocking. It noted, “Nigerian courts of law receive the biggest bribes from citizens among all institutions in which corruption is rampant.” This should worry everyone, especially the CJN. It is the duty of the NJC chaired by the CJN to reverse this ugly trend.