It was as laughable as it was symbolic. Describing himself as a traditionalist, Malcom Omirhobo came into the Supreme Court last Thursday in a native doctor’s attire: a red wrapper, white chalk circled around his right eye, cowry bracelets around his wrists and feathers in his wig. Walking barefooted, the human rights lawyer came to make mockery of the recent judgement of the apex court which affirmed the right of Muslims to wear hijab in secondary schools in Lagos.
The rot in Nigeria’s judicial system is really deep. Recently, 14 Supreme Court justices appended their signatures to a powerful petition. From the tone of the petition, you would think some students or labour unions were set to ignite their ‘aluta’ mood against the authorities. Incidentally, the protest letter is not against some external forces like the President or the lawmakers. It is against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad. It is the first of its kind in the 58-year history of the Supreme Court.
According to the justices, led by the second most senior judge of the Supreme Court, Olukayode Ariwoola, the CJN usually gallivants abroad with his spouse, children and personal staff while on overseas training, but does not extend the same privilege to them. Among others, they complained about epileptic electricity supply to the courts, high electricity tariff, inadequate supply of diesel to justices’ residences and chambers, poor health care, decrepit vehicles and accommodation issues. The justices then lamented, “We find it strange that despite the upward review of our budgetary allocation, the court cannot cater for our legitimate entitlements. This is unacceptable!”
The scandalized CJN offered some explanations. According to him, the apex court, like any other establishment in the country, is cash-strapped. In a statement by his Special Assistant on Media and Strategy, Ahuraka Isah, Muhammad said the justices protest letter “is akin to dancing naked at the market square by us with the ripple effect of the said letter. The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment; it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country.”
This is very unfortunate. Even the petition written against the immediate past CJN, Walter Onnoghen, cannot be compared with this one. At least, Onnoghen’s travails emanated from some elements outside the bench. But before we knew it, the seemingly little problem led to the harassment and unfortunate removal of the man from office in April 2019. The Code of Conduct Tribunal had convicted him on six counts of false declaration of assets.
Is Tanko Muhammad travelling the same route? Recall that Onnoghen’s predicament surfaced in the run-up to the 2019 general election. The major interpretation of the action against him then was that it was a politically motivated attempt to strategically position the hierarchy of the court in readiness for the litigation that would trail the outcome of the elections.
Now that we are preparing for another general election, a similar crisis of confidence has reared its head against the person and office of the CJN. Could this be politically motivated? Or are the justices genuinely fighting for their welfare?
The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) hazarded an answer. According to it, the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is simply plotting to emasculate the judiciary in order to foist a fascist system and subvert the will of Nigerians in the 2023 general elections. The PDP added, “The failure of the CJN to address the weighty issues contained in the said protest letter reveals that there is a systemic design by the APC-government to ensure that the judiciary is stifled and handicapped to deliver on its constitutional duty as an independent arm of government.”
The more you look, the less you see. In October 2016, some operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) invaded seven judges’ homes in the dead of the night under the guise of investigating allegations of fraud perpetrated by the judges. One of the justices, the late Sylvester Ngwuta, lived with the trauma until death. Last October, security agents also invaded the official residence of Justice Mary Odili (now retired) of the Supreme Court in Abuja for no justifiable reason. These raids usually come with variegated stories and permutations.
As it is, our judiciary is bedevilled by many illnesses. Why, for instance, do some of our judges still write judgements in long hands? Why have we not fully digitalized the processes of our courts today? Why have we not bothered to grant financial autonomy to the judiciary? Why do some judges still rely on technicality rather than justice in dispensing their judgements? And why do courts of coordinate jurisdiction engage in issuing conflicting ex-parte orders or forum shopping, especially in election or party matters?
Last year, in the Anambra State governorship primary of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), different characters obtained different judgements from the High Courts in Anambra, Imo and Jigawa. Elsewhere in the country, this has been the norm. The immediate consequence of these anomalies is the erosion of confidence in the judiciary.
Judges are people who should live above board. The society looks up to them especially when it comes to defending the rule of law. Their welfare and entitlements must not be toyed with. But, resorting to ‘aluta continua’ type of action and making it public leave me with suspicions about the intentions of the Supreme Court justices. I may be wrong. But let’s be watchful.
Nevertheless, the allegations against Muhammad raise fundamental moral issues. Hence, thorough investigation is absolutely necessary. The National Judicial Council (NJC) would have been in a position to do it. But the CJN himself is the head of the NJC. Even if he steps aside for another person to preside, it does not stop the fact that the outcome could be manipulated. Nigeria cannot afford to have a tainted Supreme Court at this time. Every organ or group worth its salt in the judiciary, including the Body of Benchers, the Body of Senior Advocates of Nigeria, the Nigerian Bar Association, retired justices and so on should intervene.
Section 231(3) of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution stipulates that “a person shall not be qualified to hold the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria or a Justice of the Supreme Court, unless he is qualified to practice as a legal practitioner in Nigeria and has been so qualified for a period of not less than fifteen years.” What this means is that the Supreme Court justices are no babies. They have attained some level of maturity and experience which should temper some of their actions.
As we begin the journey towards the 2023 general election, we should resolve not to treat the sanctity and integrity of our judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, with levity.
*First published in The SUN.
*The article was published before the resignation of CJN Tanko Muhammad.