This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: It's Judiciary's Year of Reform

Not much can be said to have really happened in the judiciary in 2013 when compared to the previous years, the outgoing year however focused mainly on reforms in the all-important arm of the government which had begun to show signs of complete breakdown, writes Davidson Iriekpen

Even in the face of seeming inactivity in 2013, it is very likely that if an opinion poll was conducted on the performance of the three arms of government for the year under review, the judiciary would certainly dwarf the two other arms (executive and legislature). While the two other arms of government were constantly in supremacy fight, the judiciary is busy doing what it knows best and waiting for who will first approach it for the crisis to be resolved.

Although not much happened in the sector in 2013 compared to other years, this year focused mainly on reforming the all-important arm of government, a credit which goes to the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloma Mariam Mukhtar, who has gradually rekindled hope in the sector that was fast drifting to self-destruct. The first port of call in the reform was the compulsory retirement of Justices Charles Efang Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Thomas Naron of the Plateau State High Court of Justice. The two judges were found guilty of professional misconduct.

Archibong was recommended for compulsory retirement for dismissing grievous charges against an accused person, a former Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank Plc, Mr. Erastus Akingbola, without even taking his plea. He, thereafter, refused to release the Certified True Copy of his ruling to lawyers in the case.

The judge was also accused of making unfounded and caustic comments on the professional competence of some Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) and also issued bench warrants on some officials of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at a time that the counsel who was directed to serve them had filed an affidavit to the effect that he had not been able to serve them the contempt application. There were also said to be glaring procedural irregularities in some of his decisions, which queried his understanding of the law and court procedures.

On his part, Justice Naron was recommended for retirement because the NJC found that there were constant and regular voice calls and exchange of text messages between him and Mr. Kunle Kalejaiye, a lead counsel to former governor of Osun State, Mr. Olagunsoye Oyinlola, during the hearing of the petition brought against Oyinlola's election by Mr. Rauf Aregbesola, at the Osun State governorship election Petitions Tribunal. This was contrary to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officials of the Federal Republic of Nigeria vide Section 292 (1) (b) of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.

Naron, thereafter, dismissed Aregbesola's petition and declared Oyinlola the validly elected winner of the 2007 governorship election in Osun State. His judgment was, however, upturned by the Court of Appeal, which declared Aregbesola the rightful winner of the election. The two judges have since been suspended from their duty posts.

This was closely followed by the suspension of Justice Abubakar Talba of an Abuja High Court after the National Judicial Council (NJC), found him guilty of handing an "unreasonable" sentence to a self-confessed pension thief, John Yakubu Yusufu. Talba, had on January 28, directed Yusufu to pay a fine of N750,000, after the accused person who was a former Deputy Director in the pension office, admitted before the trial court that he conspired with six other civil servants and stole about N23billion from the Police Pension Fund.

Though section 309 of the Criminal Procedure Act, CPA, upon which the accused person was charged to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), gave the court the choice of sentencing the accused to a maximum of two years imprisonment with a fine, Justice Talba, used his discretion and ordered Yusufu to only pay a fine and go home. No doubt, the punishments meted out on the three justices above were part of the tonic needed to bring back on track, the all-important arm of the government that was already adrift.

Before this, however, the judiciary had been seriously troubled. Everyone, including its members, knew this for a fact. Both in the courtrooms and outside, everybody knew what was going on. Allegations were rife on how judgments and orders were traded like ingredients in the open market or corner shops. Hundreds of millions and even billions of naira were alleged to regularly exchange hands between litigants and judges for cases to be won.

High profile criminals were allowed to evade justice with questionable judgments that amount to a slap on the wrist, while judgments and rulings were sometimes not only bias and incongruous, but ridiculous even to the common man. Serious cases were flippantly dismissed; ridiculous restraining orders and sentences that make the judiciary a laughing stock were becoming commonplace.

This was closely followed by the eventual retirement of Justice Ayo Isa Salami on October 13 as the President of the Court of Appeal after three years on suspension. Salami was suspended by the NJC in 2011 for refusing to tender apologies to the council and then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, after a panel of the council discovered he had lied against the former CJN.

Both the allegation and suspension had created a lot of tension in the polity with the opposition political party and some human rights lawyers mounting pressures on President Goodluck Jonathan to recall him. All that yielded no results. Unlike the previous years, 2013 was the year that the presidency was pressurised to increase funding for the judiciary in order to be at par with the other arms of government.

While the executive and legislature enjoy financial independence, the same cannot be said of the judiciary, which has been robbed of its financial autonomy, leading to frequent strikes due to poor and inadequate salary; poor state of courtrooms and the allegations of corruption against judges and support staff. It was based on this that non-governmental and civil society organisations spent the part of the year to champion increased funding for the judiciary. Their argument was that because of the importance of the judiciary, it could not afford to be underfunded otherwise it spelt doom for the country.

Finally, as part of effort to ensuring that judges wake up from their long slumber of laziness and quicken justice delivery, a new directive was recently issued to them by the NJC to ensure that they deliver at least 14 judgments every year. The directive hailed by a cross section of Nigerians, many reckon would see to the quick dispensation of cases in the New Year.

One area the judiciary got knocks in 2013 was in the area of high profile corruption cases that were before it. Despite the fact that some of the cases had been before the courts for over five years, nothing was done to at least conclude them, thereby fuelling the allegations that they had been compromised.

Only recently, the Supreme Court quashed the conviction of a former board chairman of the Nigeria Ports Authority (NPA), Chief Olabode George, and others who were earlier convicted and sentenced to prison by a Lagos High Court. Although the Court of Appeal upheld the conviction on appeal, the apex court set the conviction aside on the grounds that it was done in error. Others convicted and cleared alongside George were Alhaji Aminu Dabo, Captain Oluwasegun Abidoye, Alhaji Abdulahi Aminu Tafida, Alhaji Zanna Maidaribe and Mr. Sule Aliyu.

In the verdict which many analysts saw as a contradiction in the nation's jurisprudence or legal system, the apex court had hinged the setting aside of the conviction on the grounds that one of the offences which the applicants were convicted for- "Tender Splitting"- was not made an offence by an Act of the National Assembly and even its disobedience was nowhere penalised in written law. Speaking on this development, an Abuja-based constitutional lawyer, Chief Kayode Ajulo, stated that such calls for the overhauling of the whole system could not be overemphasised.

According to him, "It is sad that we are losing the battle against corruption and financial crimes and we need no further evidence of a failed state than what we have at hand. The way out is to have the political will and drive, as most of these cases started on good footings, but got compromised. The populace needs to be proactive. Waging war against corruption requires huge amount of fund. Therefore, funds should be provided, if the government is sincere."

Before the quashing of George's case was the release of Major Hamza Al-Mustapha, a former Chief Security Officer to the late military head of state, Gen. Sani Abacha in July 12 by a Court of Appeal, sitting in Lagos. Al-Mustapha who had been in the prison since 1998 over alleged involvement in the murder of Alhaja Kudirat Abiola, wife of the presumed winner of the June 12, 1993 presidential election, Chief MKO Abiola, was released on the grounds that no link was established between him and the murder.

However, like in the case of George, mixed reactions also trailed his release as many thought his freedom was orchestrated by the Goodluck Jonathan administration for political reasons.

But generally, the judiciary was believed to have taken a very bold step towards institutional reform in 2013 and expectations are rife that if sustained, it could help change the unsavoury perception towards that arm of government.

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