These are not the best of times for the image and reputation of the Nigerian Judiciary.
In recent years, this revered arm of government has gone into various sheds of controversy, dishonour, bullying, mockery, intimidation and outright disregard.
And this has led to the eroding of public confidence in this arm of government. The growing concern about the perceived lack of independence and integrity within the Nigerian judicial system was again heightened by two political events that unfolded a few days ago.
One was the confession an outgoing lawmaker, Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa, made during the valedictory session of the 9th Senate on Saturday, 10 June. Senator Bulkachuwa, 83, who represented Bauchi North senatorial district in the 9th Senate, confirmed infringing on the “freedom and independence” of his wife, Zainab, while she was serving as a judge and President of the Court of Appeal, to favour his colleagues.
The second happened on Monday, June 12th, when President Bola Tinubu during his Democracy Day broadcast said “It has become imperative to state here that the unnecessary illegal orders used to truncate or abridge democracy will no longer be tolerated.”
That line did not only draw the ire of the opposition who construed the statement as a “veiled threat to the Judiciary’, it also was deemed as an encroachment into the duties of the Judicial arm of government.
Senator Bulkachuwa and President Tinubu came under fire for public statements on the judiciary, which drew outright condemnation from many Nigerians.
Olisa Agbakoba, a former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, called for the arrest of the lawmaker.
“Senator Bulkachuwa’s statement at the valedictory of the 9th Senate is a monumental disgrace for our institutions. This man deserves to be taken up immediately by the authorities. It is a blight on my confidence in our systems,” he said.
Similarly, a rights lawyer, Malcolm Omirhobo, said Mr Bulkachuwa’s confession “portends danger to the dignity of the judiciary.
He argued that the senator’s remarks exposed the “phoney judgements” that emanated from Mrs Bulkachuwa and the appellate court while she served as its president.
“It will reduce the integrity of the judiciary, and the public will find it hard to trust and respect the judgements of our courts,” the lawyer pointed out, adding that “there are many like this infamous couple in Nigeria.”
In the same vein, the main opposition- the Peoples Democratic Party was also unequivocal in calling out President Tinubu for his comment about the judiciary.
Mr Phrank Shaibu, Special Assistant on Public Communication to the Presidential candidate in the 2023 elections, responded that the President had no constitutional power to determine what “an illegal or legal court order is.”
He said, “What is an illegal court order? Is it an order that Bola Tinubu finds unfavourable? Is it within his powers to determine what order to obey and which one to disregard? This is a man who just last week obtained a court order in order to stop the Nigeria Labour Congress from going on strike.
“However, now he suddenly realises that unnecessary so-called illegal orders used in truncating democracy would no longer be tolerated when his minions in Lagos deprived non-indigenes from voting. What a hypocrite.”
However, amid all these controversies, another lawmaker, Senator Ali Ndume commended Senator Bulkachuwa’s confession, attesting that he also faces a similar situation.
“My first wife is a high court judge. When people know your wife is a judge, they pressure you. We are all humans,” he said.
“It depends on how strong you are to stand against these things. When the system is compromised, you will be tempted,” he said.
In a democracy, the role of the judicial arm of government is deemed noble, powerful and sacred. This is due to their duty as a watchdog over the other branches of government, namely the Executive and Legislative.
While ordinary citizens can more easily become part of the other arms of government, the Judicial arm is a professional organ composed of cerebral and respected members of the Bench tasked with meting out justice whenever disputes arise between the arms of government or between the people and the government they elected.
It was against this backdrop of sacred responsibilities that the judiciary was dubbed the ‘Last Hope of the Common Man.’
Sadly, the reputation of the Judiciary as the hope of ordinary Nigerians is fast waning.
In the last eight years, several high-profile cases with questionable verdicts have fueled doubts about the integrity of judges and the court system.
Numerous allegations have been made regarding the acceptance of bribes and the manipulation of judgments by some judges, contributing to a growing lack of trust.
And the comments of Senator Bulkachuwa and President Tinubu, have not only added credence to that perception but further exposes Judicial intimidation and interference from the Legislative and Executive arms of government.
The loss of confidence in the judiciary has dire consequences in every sphere of any society.
This is because a weakened judicial system not only contributes to a lack of accountability, and opens the door to impunity, it could also lead to a breakdown of social order and a decline in respect for the rule of law.
The chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja Chapter, Seyi Olawumi, while condemning the declining image of the judiciary, said there is a growing loss of public confidence in the legal systems, and citizens are now interested in going to bribe judges.
He said, “Senator Bulkachuwa merely confirmed our suspicion, and it is a shame that this could be happening in modern-day Nigeria.
“I think the judiciary needs to purge itself, especially in light of this new revelation. They have to do more to win the confidence of the public.
“The situation is affecting us, lawyers, because our clients are losing faith in the system. You now see clients asking a lawyer to give him the phone number of a particular judge and leave the rest to them.
“So there is a need for the judiciary to purge itself. Also, the lawyers should do more too, because these things are not done without the connivance of the lawyers.”
With these ominous implications in mind, what can be done to clean the Augean stable of the judiciary, and repair their damaged reputation before the Nigerian populace?
“In saner climes, all the cases, especially high profile ones, the judge handled would be investigated. She will also face measures to deter such things in future.
“One of the worst things that can happen is to go and influence a judge to give you a favourable judgement. It is a sin against God,” Monday Ubani, Chairman, Section of Public Interest and Development (SPIDEL) of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, told DAILY POST.
Ubani stressed what is happening in the judiciary does not question Judicial independence, it rather exposes the calibre of persons admitted to be made judges.
“Why is it that the people that become judges are usually wives, daughters and children of the high and mighty in Nigeria? Brilliant lawyers who would have made better judges on the Bench are not given the opportunity.
“Rather we have a situation where people who become judges, may not have the calling to be a judge. But because the people recommending them are high network individuals, people of high political, religious and judicial connection.
“So the children of the high and mighty are the ones that will end up being on the Bench. This is why we are having these kinds of problems we have in the judiciary, because those people there are not the best.
“Most of them have not practised the nitty gritty of law in order to appreciate sound judgments whenever they read. Most of their judgments are very shallow because there is no depth in some of the people brought into the judicial circle to act as judges.
“So it’s something that we need to really sit down, talk about, and review the judicial processes once again, to ensure that those that become judges merit it not on who you know.
“The confidence of the Nigerian masses can be won back when they see justice delivered. Part of our problem in the country will be solved if we have a judiciary that is independent to mete out justice without fear or favour.
“It doesn’t require anything special other than to do the right thing in terms of administration of justice”, Ubani added.
Also, rights activist and chairman of the Human and Environment Development Agenda (HEDA), Mr Olanrewaju Suraj called on the Nigeria Judicial Commission to wake up to its responsibilities to monitor the activities of judges, especially with the rising incidents of contradicting judgements at the courts.
“The NJC needs to stop playing the ostrich. Senator Bulkachuwa’s statement is very unfortunate and should be investigated.
“Such comments confirm fears that judgements from our court are made based on interests rather than justice.
“Likewise, the statement shows how women are subjected by their spouses when they rise to certain high positions. There should be an investigation on how men influence their wives that are in high positions.
“This matter must not be swept under the carpet like we usually do. It needs to be looked into critically.”