When Justice Mahmud Mohammed came on board as the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) the public perception of the judiciary was at its lowest ebb.
Like his predecessors in office, he wasted no time in drawing up road maps and policies which claimed to be the final solution to ending the endemic scourge called judicial corruption.
The story was told of how some serving judges, who were appointed to serve on the panel of Election Petition tribunals, became billionaires overnight.
The National Judicial Council (NJC), in its latest attempt to tackle this menace recently published the revised Judicial Discipline Regulations.
The regulations instated new rules governing the reception and consideration of complaints against judges. The revised rules are aimed at curtailing frivolous petitions against judges and preventing judges from being distracted by vexatious and baseless allegations against them.
Rule 1(1) of the revised regulations states: “A complaint must be made within six months of the event or matter complained of, provided a complaint relating to a continuing state of affairs may be made at any time while the state of affairs continues or within six months from when it ends.”
However, in most cases, the corrupt conduct of a judicial officer only becomes public knowledge following a careless slip or from the irrepressible work of investigative reporters.
This was exactly what happened recently in neigbouring Ghana, where the long arm of the law has caught up with 22 judges and magistrates, fingered in what can be described as Ghana’s biggest judicial scandal in recent years.
Ghana Judicial Council said that 12 High Court judges were being investigated, following incriminating evidence contained in a video released by a local investigative journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas.
Anas in two different petitions dated August 31, and September 2, 2015 addressed to the President of the Republic of Ghana and the Chief Justice respectively, tendered a damning video that captured the judicial officials taking bribes from litigants.
The journalist had asked the Ghanaian President to take disciplinary action against the indicted judicial officials.
Consequently, President John Mahama directed the Chief Justice, Georgina Theodora Wood, to take the necessary process against the officials.
Following a crucial meeting of the Judicial Council, the 22 indicted judges were promptly suspended with effect from Thursday September 10, 2015. They remain suspended until a final determination on the case.
The award winning journalist claimed his video contained over 150 hour-documentation, detailing acts of corruption, including bribe- taking and extortion of litigants by judges and other judicial officials in the country.
Also, the Chief Justice has constituted a five-man disciplinary committee headed by a Supreme Court justice to investigate the allegation against the 12 High Court judges.
The committee has also been mandated to investigate other court officials and clerks, who may have been involved in the scandal.
Back home, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) Justice Mahmud Mohammed, said recently that between 2009 and 2014, no fewer than 64 judges were disciplined out of the 1020 judges currently serving in the Superior Courts.
Nigerian Judiciary is made up of a hierarchy of courts beginning from the Customary and Area Courts at the base and the Supreme Court at the apex. We have the Magistrates Courts, Federal and States High Courts, National Industrial Court, Sharia Court of Appeal, Customary Court of Appeal and the Court of Appeal in the middle. The number of Judicial Officers serving in our Superior Courts of Record- High Courts, Customary Courts of Appeal, Sharia Courts of Appeal, National Industrial Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court are over 1020 as at the end of 2014.
In our lower courts, the figure is about 7000 Judges and Magistrates. Therefore, corruption in the Judiciary having regard to the number of Judges and the number of those accused of corruption, the percentage is very low.
The CJN gave the break down when he spoke at a seminar organised by the Nigerian Bar Association’s Anti-Corruption Commission, with the theme “the fight against corruption in Nigeria: the way forward”.
He mentioned that the NJC during his tenure as the chairman has not shirked this responsibility but faced it head on.
He said that out of the 64 judges that were disciplined as appropriate by the NJC, some of them are no more on the Bench.
The CJN however added that it was sad that the public officials and persons who benefit from corrupting judicial officers are never investigated, apprehended or even prosecuted, even though the judiciary disciplines its own.
“The basic question, my lords, ladies and gentlemen is, how can we stop judicial corruption when the scale is seemingly tilted in favour of the beneficiaries?
“While trying to improve discipline within the Bench, the leadership of the judiciary has also taken steps to enact new guidelines that will see a more transparent recruitment process, thus ensuring that only persons that are intellectually sound with integrity are appointed as judicial officers ab initio.
He said further that the bar must purge itself of its dishonest members for the bench to be corruption-free “since the bench was a product of the bar, it would not change if its origin remained the same.”
Justice Mohammed said it was time for the legal profession to exorcise the pernicious ghost of corruption from its midst so that the bench could be free of unethical practices.
He said, “It is important to highlight that the bench is a product of the Bar and unless we work in synergy to ensure that only fit and proper persons remain in our midst, it will be impossible to expect a different bench when its origin remains the same.
“I hereby call on the leadership of the bar to expunge from its ranks, such persons whose conduct may be unfit, improper, dishonest or otherwise unethical.
“The time has surely come for us all to take concrete, meaningful and lasting action to exorcise the pernicious ghost of corruption from the most noble of professions.”
He said although there were corrupt judges in the judiciary, “corruption within the judiciary is only imbibed by a minute minority.”
The CJN also expressed serious concern about the incessant rise in petitions written and forwarded to the National Judicial Council (NJC).
“Equally perturbing is the profusion of legal practitioners who are quick to write needless petitions that impugn the character of honest judges simply because they have felt aggrieved at being at the wrong end of that court’s decisions or because they perceive that a judge may not find in their favour.
“Regrettably, rather than directing their productive energies to filing meritorious appeals against such decisions, counsel have sometimes resorted to attacks ad hominem against judges. While I do not seek to discourage counsel from writing petitions that show genuine, cogent cause, I urge counsel to ensure that such complaints are factual and based on acts, which would constitute misconduct or other breach of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) or any other law currently in force in Nigeria.
This is to ensure that genuine petitions are appropriately addressed with the seriousness and speed that is demanded. It is of equal importance to ensure that public statements or accusations of impropriety against judicial officers are firmly supported with adequate evidence. It must be appreciated that the integrity of the judges and the judiciary is a sacred public trust that must be protected and upheld by all.”
It is for this reason that, as part of our determined effort to ensure that our Judicial Officers are alert to their responsibilities, the NJC has constituted an Inspection and Monitoring Committee for on-the-spot assessment of judicial officers on duty.
As we continue to fish out and discipline indolent and lazy judges by showing them the way out of the system, we must also acknowledge and praise those judges that are diligent and hardworking. To this end, the NJC’s Judicial Officers Performance Evaluation Committee has also been strengthened to perform its functions,” the CJN said.
While the CJN said that only 64 judges have been dealt with in five years, the picture painted by the immediate past CJN justice Justice Maryam Aloma Mukhtar was that of real cases of massive corruption rampant among judiciary employees including secretaries, court registrars, process clerks and bailiffs nationwide.
Mukhtar noted that the conduct of these employees was in increasing breach of the Code of Court for judiciary staff.
Mukhtar warned that any act of misconduct and breach of the code would be punished decisively to arrest the eroding public confidence in the judicial process.
“Now more than ever, the public has become more critical of the conduct of judicial staff, perhaps buoyed by public outcry against unwholesome conduct of the judicial staff like leakage of judgments before delivery, demanding bribes before the preparation of records of appeal, acting as go-between for some overzealous litigants and some corrupt judicial officers, ostentatious lifestyles beyond legitimate earnings and host of other activities,” she noted.
She lamented that “these corrupt activities of some judicial staff have raised serious issues as to the credibility and integrity of the persons who are employed to assist the judicial officers in the performance of their duties.
“Some of the corrupt ones amongst you have gone ahead to solicit and collect millions of naira from unscrupulous litigants on the pretext that they are acting for the judicial officers handling their cases. This is bad and reprehensible.”
She noted that “Many judges and magistrates have been violently attacked by hoodlums on the mistaken belief that they did not perform even after money has been given to them through their staff.”
Meanwhile many have been caught and disciplined, but so many have so far escaped detection.
The judiciary doesn’t have a garrison of army to fight its cause or enforce its orders and decisions. NJC for instance can only recommend disciplinary actions against erring judicial officers for approval and enforcement by the president.
It cannot go further to levy charges against the judge for his or her criminal acts; neither could NJC prosecute the persons that bribed the judge for instance to balkanize cause of justice. The Counsel doesn’t have criminal investigation unit or ‘’Fraud Detective Squad’’ to detect and investigate criminal involvement of any judicial officer. It can only put the judge on trial if there is a petition filed against him or her, again, the trials are based mostly on documentary evidence which is hard to get.
Hence there is an urgent need to overhaul the judiciary.