A few weeks ago, I had visited a court in Lagos to process an affidavit needed to retrieve a missing sim card. Getting an affidavit in any Nigerian court is the easiest thing to do. Inside the court premises, an elderly woman typed the information I provided in an A4 paper with an old typewriter. A tout who had approached me earlier rushed with the paper to the court registry. He emerged later with the official affidavit complete with a court stamp and the official signature of the commissioner of oath! I had marveled at the speed at which a legal document can be procured without actually swearing an oath before a constituted authority. In Nigerian courts, even a criminal can swear to an affidavit. After collecting my sworn affidavit, I had decided to visit a friend who works as judicial officer. In the midst of my search, I had wandered into a court session that was about to begin. Curious, I asked a court official if I could sit through the session He said I could.
A man in handcuffs was led into the dock straight from a parked Nigerian Prisons vehicle parked within the court premises. The judge appeared and we all stood to acknowledge his presence. Then case file was given to the judge. The charge was read by the clerk. The man was accused of stealing a goat belonging to his neigbhour somewhere on Lagos Island.
On enquiry, I learnt he had been in detention for about a year. He had been brought to court countless times with no attorney to represent him. His lawyer had refused to show up. Even his accusers had long backed off the case. Yet the case was adjourned and he was returned to Kirikiri as another countless cases of awaiting trials in Nigerian courts. I had wondered why the judge would not just dismiss the case. As I made to leave the court premises, I stumbled on a high profile case. Outside the court, black SUVs, stern-looking EFCC officials and riot police stood guard as an influential politician who I had immediately recognized alighted from an all-tinted car black SUV. I also recognized a dozen senior lawyers of Senior Advocate of Nigeria rank who had accompanied the politician.
The atmosphere was intimidating and different from the earlier case I had witnessed. After a brief appearance at the court, the cars drove off as furiously as they came. The politician is still strutting about and proffering solutions to national issues while the man who stole a goat is still languishing in Kirikiri. But sadly, that is the picture of the justice system in Nigeria today. A justice system where the rich and the influential can afford to buy justice while the less fortunate spend years on awaiting trial even for the crime they did not commit is the paradox of the Nigerian justice system.
The current scandal rocking the judiciary with revelations that judges and politicians have been colluding to corrupt the electoral system is a conspiracy against Nigerians. Thankfully, the conspiracy is unravelling before our very eyes. The fall out of the judges’ raid as Nigerians have seen will eventually consume the political class across the political divide and the judges found to have corrupted their revered position as custodian of justice. My hope is that there will be no sacred cow- that the Buhari government will also find the will to investigate and prosecute anyone from its own party found to be involved.
As this drama unfold, what is clear is that the judiciary has been infiltrated by politicians’ intent on procuring electoral victory at all cost. Thy have also found willing partners in judges’ intent on doing their bidding. For long, the unholy alliance between the bench and the political class has been a concern for discerning Nigerians. Since the birth of the Fourth Republic, we have seen how lawyers, courts and politicians have made a mockery of the justice system.
The debate about growing our democracy has centered on how the judiciary has been a cog in the wheel of democratic progress. In other climes, the bar and the bench are at forefront in the fight to ensure a democratic justice and the rule of law have but they have played a role in subverting the rule of law central to achieving a true democratic government. Every election circle, Nigerians have been subjected to a rash of delayed judgements and questionable court decisions that have left many to question the role of the judiciary in this democracy.
Until the last elections reforms, election petitions would run perpetually while cases lingered for years undecided. In the past, we have witnessed how judges in tribunals were alleged to have connived with politicians. In such cases, call logs of judges were allegedly traced to politicians.
There were also situations when legal loopholes were unscrupulously exploited by crooked lawyers. One of the most ridiculous examples was when the former governor of Rivers state Peter Odili was granted a perpetual injunction by Justice Ibrahim N. Buba, a Federal High Court judge in Port Harcourt stopping Nigerian security agencies including the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission from investigating the former governor of River State for corruption. Though Justice Buba has been queried by the National Judicial Commission, Peter Odili has still not faced justice for the alleged financial crimes he committed during his years as governor.
Sadly since the Odili years, several cases of corruption involving judges before the National Judicial Council. But the current scandal arising from the raid on judges is set to consume the entire political class and the judges who have allowed the hallowed chamber to be corrupted by lucre. The good thing about raid is that the affected judges have decided to spill the beans on even members of the ruling government. They have started singing like canaries.
They seemed resolved to not to go down alone. Who could have foretold that a dawn raid on justices of the Supreme and federal high court would produce some of the intimate revelations that transpired between politicians and high ranking judicial accomplices? These are interesting times indeed. At the last count, even top members of the APC government are also being named in the saga. Is this a sign of things to come? Are we up for more revelations about how the political class and the judiciary have ganged up to short change Nigerians and corrupted the electoral system? The judges have started talking. But why they kept quiet all the while raises some disturbing questions.
How long has this conspiracy gone on? One of the arrested judges, Justice Okoro has named the Minister of Transport, Rotimi Amaechi as having approached him to influence the outcome of Rivers election. In Ebonyi, the Minister of Science and Technology, Mr. Ogbonnaya Onu, was also accused by Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta of pressure to influence Ebonyi governorship decision. And the revelations continue. The National Judicial Council has to determine veracity of these claims and conduct an investigation.
The Presidency has insisted the judges must go to trial. Hopefully, all the allegations will be investigated and all involved brought to book. As the conspiracy between the judiciary and Nigerian politicians unravel, Nigerians hope this will offer an opportunity to clean-up the system. It will also be a true test of Buhari’s anti-corruption campaign to make sure the broom sweeps clean.