Recently, operatives of the Directorate of State Services (DSS), raided the houses of some judges in Abuja, Gombe, Kano and Port Harcourt and arrested, at least, four judicial officers. DSS explained it as a sting operation during which raw cash in various denominations were found in the residences of the judges. To say that Nigerians were alarmed about the development will be stating the obvious.
Not too long ago, the National Judicial Council (NJC), with Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, as chairman recommended compulsory retirement from office of the Presiding Justice, Court of Appeal, Ilorin Division, Hon Justice Mohammed Ladan Tsamiya, Chief Judge of Enugu State, Justice Innocent Umezulike and the dismissal from service of Hon Justice Kabiru M. Auta of the High Court of Justice, Kano State with immediate effect following alleged corruption and official misconduct by the affected judicial officers. In this latest incident, Supreme Court Justices were also affected, demonstrating, in our view, the level of rot in the judicial system.
In the meantime, reactions to this embarrassing drama have been varied as the Chief Justice of Nigeria called an emergency meeting of the NJC while the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), on its part, declared a state of emergency in the judiciary.
It is not out of place to conjecture that what had happened could be a reflection of the government’s impatience with the judiciary over persistent allegations of corruption. We share in this feeling because, previously, on this page, we had also urged the judiciary to cleanse itself of the contaminating effect of bad eggs in its midst.
From what is happening elsewhere, it appears that the mess is not peculiar to Nigerian judiciary alone as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents in the United States of America arrested a Puerto Rico Superior Court judge suspected of accepting bribes in exchange for acquitting a man charged in a fatal drunk-driving case. So, it will be wrong to insinuate that what had happened was a confrontation between the executive and judicial arms of government.
Before the coming into office of this administration, corruption was perpetrated in the judiciary with impunity. We are aware of the pension funds fraud in which an official admitted openly in court that he stole from the fund and yet the judge set him free with a slap on the wrist. Even worse is the case of State Governors and other politicians who were accused and actually arrested for crimes they committed while in office. Almost all of them are today walking the streets as free men with the active connivance of the judges and colluding lawyers. Then, it was dismissed as corruption fighting back. From the look of things, it could possibly be much more than just corruption fighting back as litigations became honey pots from which compromised judges and lawyers feasted.
From the high legal fee lawyers, especially the Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), charge their clients, there were barely veiled allegations that substantial part of it went to the judges who looked the other way as the course of justice is perverted. With the kind of money that were reported to have been recovered from these judicial officers’ residences, they will be hard put explaining to Nigerians how they came about such figures.
In fairness to the NJC, it has tried to assuage the anxieties of Nigerians by punishing a number of those officers. But, it appears that a lot more work is needed to be done to restore the temple of justice to its pristine glory and integrity.
However, we will counsel that in keeping with the tenets of democracy and the rule of law, due process must be followed in which case search warrants as well as warrants of arrest issued by courts of competent jurisdiction are obtained. Visiting the residence of a judge at the dead of night in Gestapo – style, by fierce – looking, well-armed security operatives, breaking down doors and windows to gain access, exposes the agency to accusations of high-handedness which cannot be tolerated in a democracy.