Justice Onnoghen needs a new wave of reform to restore credibility to the bench
After his confirmation last week by the Senate, Justice Walter Samuel Onnoghen became the substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN). It was a fitting end to a needless drama that started with his nomination as acting CJN by President Muhammadu Buhari on November 10 last year. With the process now concluded, Onnoghen has his job cut out for him at a period the judiciary in Nigeria is on trial. This is not only because some judges are actually facing charges of corruption, the confidence of the public has been badly shaken by the antics of many of the men and women on the bench.
Unfortunately, the debate that dominated the appointment of Onnoghen as acting CJN and eventual nomination to the Senate for confirmation was about the politics of North and South. Yet in the application of law in a secular state, justice should be blind to which section of the country a judge hails from. It should be about the protection of the rights and liberties of citizens and the promotion of the rule of law and public good in a milieu where individuals have overpowered the system such that justice is no longer to the weak.
At his confirmation hearing, Justice Onnoghen made allusion to this state of affairs by imputing that the judicial arm of government is neither free nor independent in Nigeria. “The judiciary will welcome a day when a decision is handed down by the court and it is obeyed. That is when the judiciary will be independent,” he said in a coded but strong message to the presidency.
We agree with Justice Onnoghen that disobedience to court order, which is fast becoming the norm under the Buhari administration, constitutes perhaps the greatest threat to our democracy. Resort to self-help in the resolution of disputes, which the government is unwittingly encouraging, can only result in anarchy. It is all the more disturbing against the background that Section 287 of the constitution which all political office holders swore to uphold and defend imposes on them a binding duty to obey the judgments of our courts. We hope the authorities will take note of the statement by the new CJN.
However, there is also a need for internal house-cleansing. The crisis of credibility afflicting the judiciary has taken a serious toll on the institution. Indeed, its image in the eyes of most Nigerians is now severely battered. So bad is the situation that there is an on ongoing investigation of some men and women on the bench, including Supreme Court justices, allegedly linked with corrupt practices. Restoring credibility has therefore become the task of all the relevant stakeholders, but more of Justice Onnoghen as the CJN and chair of the National Judicial Commission (NJC).
That those bringing shame upon the institution are the same custodians charged with maintaining its integrity and prestige is not in doubt. But they also have accomplices as once testified to by a former President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami. Speaking at an event organised by the Ikeja chapter of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Salami pointed accusing fingers at lawyers: “You members of the bar often tell sordid stories or tales of certain high ranking serving or retired judicial officers who act as ‘arrangees’ or couriers of bribe. That is, such are engaged at a fee to reach out to judges to influence or ‘purchase’ justice in certain sensitive cases.”
As we have repeatedly said in our previous editorials, the judiciary is not just any institution: it is an important arm of government that knits human society together. Yet the function of law as instrument of social engineering is made difficult in Nigeria by the corruption of judges. From the delays in the administration of justice which are most often deliberate acts, to the culture owf tardiness and corruption which robs the institution of its impartiality, fairness and independence, there is an urgent need to restore integrity to the bar and the bench in Nigeria.
We wish Justice Onnoghen all the best in his new assignment as Chief Justice of Nigeria.