The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Ibrahim Muhammad could not have been more succinct when he decried disrespect to lawful court orders by some members of the public. Such acts, sadly, have lately become common place among very senior public officers who often feel they are above the law. Nothing can be more condemnable because such disobedience constitutes flagrant disregard to due process and rule of law, without which a country can hardly survive.
However, while the judiciary is entitled to lament over the development, the CJN should equally be concerned about damning reports of thriving corruption embedded in the judicature. As the head of that arm of government, Muhammad should appreciate that the judiciary must earn rather than command respect of the public; and being entangled in corruption is not a way to earn the desired respect.
During the recent conferment of the rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on 72 legal practitioners, Muhammad, represented by Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour decried the disrespect to lawful court orders by some members of the public exhibiting a total lack of respect for the judiciary. In his words, “obedience of lawful court orders has no alternative in any sane society. A threat to this is simply a call for anarchy…Most times, some persons who, by sheer stroke of providence, find themselves in position of authority, flagrantly disobey lawful court orders and even make a boast of it.”
The CJN did not name any culprit, but in the recent past, the administration of President Muhammad Buhari has been chief among violators of orders of the court. In fact, the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN) is quick to provide an excuse on why an Order made against the government was disobeyed. Relevant cases where government flouted court order include those involving Publisher of SaharaReporters, Omoyele Sowore; leader of the Islamic Movement in Nigeria, Ibraheem El-Zakzaky and former National Security Adviser, Col. Sambo Dasuki,
However, the judiciary needs to do soul searching if it hopes to regain the dignity and awe with which it was once regarded. According to the famous novelist, Chinua Achebe, the man that brings ant-infested faggots into his hut should not grumble when lizards begin to pay him a visit.
In particular, the CJN should be bothered about the recent report by the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related Offenses Commission (ICPC) which, in the “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey” it carried out, ranked the judiciary atop the country’s corruption index, as an estimated sum of N9.4 billion was demanded, offered and or received as bribe by the justice sector between 2018 and 2020, with most of the transactions brokered by lawyers representing politicians in high profile electoral cases. The message coming from the report is that justice in the country is reserved for the highest bidders.
In the last two years, a number of judges (in High courts, National Industrial Court, Sharia Court and Customary Court) across the country were recommended for disciplinary action ranging from dismissal to compulsory retirement for various corruption offences and ethical misconduct. According to D. Olu Olagoke in his book, The Incorruptible Judge, “if the citadel of justice is corrupt, what will happen to the body politics? It will be completely rotten and collapse.” It would appear that the dung with which some politicians have become infamous has found its way into the halls of justice and the stench is what members of the public now finds repulsive.
Public perception on the integrity of the country’s justice system has been on the wane, and judicial officers must be reminded that loss of confidence in the integrity of the system, due to corruption, is an embrace of self-help by the people and a sure path to a breakdown of law and order in the society. Thus it is the responsibility of all stakeholders to ensure that the dignity of the judiciary is maintained.
Lawyers too should be reminded that, as ministers in the temple of justice, the Rules of Professional Conduct forbids them in the course of representation of clients, to give service or advice to the client which he knows or ought reasonably to know is capable of causing disloyalty to, or breach of the law, or bringing disrespect to the holder of a judicial office, or involving corruption of holders of any public office.
If government is sincere about its crusade against corrupt practices, particularly in public institutions, then erring judicial officers must be prosecuted to deter potential culprits; and to erase notion that it is sufficient for such officers to be merely recommended for dismissal or compulsory retirement, as the NJC has done most of the time. A judge that has abused the privilege of his/her or office has gone ultra vires his call of duty and has lost all protection of immunity as may have been granted by virtue of his/her office and should not be accorded any special privilege.
The judiciary as the bastion of law and order needs to give Nigerians hope and a reason to believe. No nation can pride itself of institutions strong enough to drive development, peace and unity if it lacks respect for the rule of law.