Reports are rife in the media that the heads of the nation’s Judiciary had an Iftar dinner to break the Ramadan fast with President Muhammadu Buhari, in Aso Villa, Abuja.
In his remarks in appreciation of the Ramadhan fast-breaking, the Acting Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, leading retired Chief Justices, some Justices of the Supreme Court and heads of courts in the Federal Capital Territory, FCT was said to have assured the nation that judiciary will continue to do its best in safeguarding the country’s democracy. He was also reported to have praised President Buhari for not meddling in the affairs of the courts in the country.
The foregoing has sparked reactions in the country with some defending while others pointing accusing fingers on the CJN. The rationale behind the debate is not far fetched. A judicial officer or generally speaking, a Justice or Judge of any of our exalted courts, occupies a very unique and sacred position in the society. Occupying this position means that a high level of integrity, honesty and accountability is expected from judicial officer since he literally sits in judgment over the affairs and interactions of members of the society. It then means that where a judicial officer violates or breaches any of the strict codes or standards of his exalted office, the society through relevant laws and structures must respond decisively to deal with such breach or violations that could be described as unbecoming of a holder of such a sacred and exalted office.
Coming back to the Acting CJN, has he breached any law? The relevant provisions of the Code of Conduct For Judicial Officers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2016 is as follows:
Propriety and the appearance of propriety, both professional and personal
1.1 Propriety and the appearance of propriety, both professional and personal, are essential elements of a Judge’s life. As members of the public expect a high standard of conduct from a Judge, he or she must, when in doubt about attending an event or receiving a gift, however small, ask himself or herself the question- “How might this look in the eyes of the public?”
1.2 A Judge shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all of the Judge’s activities both in his professional and private life.
1.3 A Judicial Officer should respect and comply with the laws of the land and should conduct himself at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary.
1.4 The Judge must be sensitive to the need to avoid contacts that may lead people to speculate that there is a special relationship between him and someone whom the Judge may be tempted to favour in some way in the course of his judicial duties.
1.5 A Judicial Officer must avoid social relationships that are improper or may give rise to an appearance of impropriety or that may cast doubt on the ability of a Judicial Officer to decide cases impartially. (capitalized for emphasis)
The above provisions are self explanatory. They are clear and unambiguous dispensing with the need for any external aid for comprehension. It should be noted that Justice Tanko just like any other Nigerian enjoys fundament rights to personal liberty, association, expression and movement. The rights are, however, not absolute. They are subject to certain restrictions as contained in the above provision in line with section 45 of the constitution. Therefore as a Judicial Office, he is expected to avoid impropriety and any appearance of impropriety in all his activities and should at all times conduct himself in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the Judiciary. Consequently, one may have no hesitation in condemning the act of the CJN in accepting to be at the residence of Mr president for the iftar dinner. What makes the matter worse is the timing. This is a critical period when presidential election is pending before the Court of Appeal.
In case there will be appeal from the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court, is the CJN himself that would constitute the panel. Now that he is dining with the litigant (Mr president), what would be the impression of an ordinary Nigerian when he constitutes a panel to hear and determine the appeal in which the litigant before him is a party? The most important thing is not honesty in his actions, rather, what the perception of the public would be in the circumstances as well captured in rule 1(1) of the Code above in the following lines: “… as members of the public expect a high standard of conduct from a Judge, he or she must, when in doubt about attending an event or… ask himself or herself the question- “How might this look in the eyes of the public?”. Is still fresh in our memory that President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday, 23 June, 2016 hosted Onnoghen CJN (as he then was) to breaking of the Ramadan fast at the presidential villa, Abuja. However, the situations are not the same. This is so because then there was no presidential election petition or any sensitive case involving the president or any government agency before him (Onoghen). Assuming there was a pending sensitive matter before Onoghen, it would still not justify Justice Tanko’s visit to the presidential villa. Two wrongs cannot make a right. We should not contemplate retrogression, rather we ought to contemplate progress.
There are replete of cases of suspension of judges for failure to observe the provisions of the Code of Conduct above. Example, a report by the Premium Times on February 21, 2013, stated that Justices Charles Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Thomas Naron of the Plateau State High Court were suspended by the NJC for alleged judicial misconduct. Again on February 28, 2014, it was reported by Ihuoma Chiedozie of the Punch Newspaper that two Judges were dismissed by the NJC. Justice Gladys Olotu of the Abuja Federal High Court and Justice U.A Inyang of the Federal Capital Territory High Court were both suspended for gross misconduct.
In the case of Justice Naron, the NJC found that there were constant and regular voice calls and exchange of SMS and between the judge and one of the lead counsels during the Osun Governorship Election Petitions’ Tribunal that heard the petition of the then Action Congress (AC) governorship candidate, Rauf Aregbesola against the then Governor Olagunsoye Oyinlola. Call logs of Narons’s phone showed that he was in constant communication with Otunba Kunle Kalejaiye, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and lead counsel to the then governor, while the judge presided over the election tribunal that would decide Mr. Oyinlola’s fate. He later dismissed the petitioner’s claim and affirmed the declaration of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that Prince Oyinlola validly won the 2007 governorship election. Oyinlola was, however, later sacked by the Court of Appeal which declared his opponent and incumbent Governor, Rauf Aregbesola, the authentic winner of the election. The NJC said that Naron’s action was contrary to the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers.
However, it is gratifying that in spite of the numerous cases of dismissal of judges for misconduct, at least there are few ones that would forever be remembered for boldness and courage in complying the Code of Conduct. Among them is J.I.C Taylor, then Chief Justice of Lagos State. Vanguard reported on 19th November, 2016 that the judicial icon had been invited to a state dinner by the Military Governor of the State- Brigadier Mobolaji Johnson and the invitation was brought by one of the Governor’s aides. Justice Taylor, after reading it, endorsed a brief note to the governor at the back of the invitation card, informing him that he would be unable to attend, because the Lagos State government had several cases pending before him and it would therefore, in the circumstances, be most inappropriate for him to honour the invitation. That simple, (unprecedented though), act of judicial boldness and courage, best captures the essence of the man- as a man among men, and a judicial icon and oracle.
One would have expected Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed to follow the foot steps of J.I.C Taylor in view of the pending presidential election petition which, to the knowledge of everyone, is too sensitive. The ethics and code of conduct require transparency and accountability in almost every facet of a Judicial Officer’s life. Conduct in a Judicial capacity as well as in extra-judicial capacity invariably have bearing on the perception of the Judiciary as an Institution. Like clergyman, there are many things Judges must not do either in public or in private which private individuals can do with aplomb. This is because such conduct invariably says a lot about the type of individual that has been entrusted with the task of dispensing justice. That is a task reserved only for God’s representatives on earth. God himself in the various religious books ordained the role and office of ‘Judge’.