By Ade Adesomoju
The general elections have yet to hold but the apprehension about the possibility of rigging and violence during the polls has already dominated the minds of many Nigerians, and the fear about the impartiality and independence of the nation to right the wrongs in the aftermath of the process is so real that it is ‘touchable’.
Once again, the third arm of government is in the eyes of the storm and its current state brings back the memory of Greek mythology’s Astraea as the last immortal to live among humans on earth during the Golden Age.
The virgin-goddess best known as the goddess of justice, purity and innocence was said to have left the earth owing to the increasing wickedness and lawlessness of humanity during the subsequent ages of man.
Legal experts also believe that as the immortal gods who dotted especially the landscape of the ancient Greece left the earth one after the other taking with them the Golden Age; so also have some who are regarded as the mortal gods of the Nigerian judiciary have not only departed the bench but also the earth, with the golden era of the third arm of government.
Juxtaposing the past and present states of the Nigerian judiciary in a chat with our correspondent, Lagos-based lawyer and analyst of legal issues, Mr Jiti Ogunye, noted that members of the legal profession continued to be fond of the era when the likes of Justice Kayode Eso, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, Justice Otutu Obaseki, and Justice Chuwkueneike Idigbe, who have all passed on, manned the Supreme Court bench.
Ogunye said, “In that era, judges were courageous, in spite of the fact that the military government was there with its shackles of decrees and intimidation.”
He said the age was not just about the contributions of the judges of that era to the development of law, but “also about their ethics and incorruptibility” as “the bench was scandal-free in the era”.
Fast-forward to October 2016, the situation had turned to bad and degenerated to worse that judges’ homes were raided by the operatives of the Department of State Services in the dead of the night and in the process, huge sums of cash in local and major foreign currencies were recovered from some of the judges’ houses.
By 2017, it was no longer jaw-dropping to hear of serving judges not only being accused of corrupt acts with or without good reasons but being arraigned in court on corruption charges.
It is believed that perception of real and imagined corruption on the bench, without prejudice to the merit of the corruption allegations raised, is being exploited by the executive arm of government especially under the current President Muhammadu Buhari Administration to hound the judiciary and undermine its independence.
The flurry of reactions that followed the controversial suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, by the President only days to the general elections brings home this point.
Building on the 2016 raid of judges’ homes by DSS operatives, the Federal Government, last month, charged the head of the Nigerian judiciary, CJN Onnoghen, with charges of failure to declare as part of his assets some of his bank accounts with huge amounts of allegedly inexplicable funds in foreign currencies.
Like the major opposition party, the Peoples Democratic Party, top lawyers and many other socio-political groups, the umbrella body of all Nigerian lawyers, the Nigerian Bar Association, condemned the charges filed against Onnoghen, describing it as a ploy to emasculate the judiciary and intimidate judges ahead of the forthcoming general elections.
The NBA, through its President, Mr. Paul Usoro (SAN), said the “assault against the CJN and by extension the judiciary” was “aimed at emasculating that arm of the government and intimidating our judges ahead of the 2019 national elections.”
The ripples created by this unprecedented development had yet to die down when President Buhari about two weeks later shocked the world by suspending the CJN and immediately swore in the next most senior Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Tanko Muhammad, as the acting CJN.
The President had said his action was based on an ex parte order issued by the Code of Conduct Tribunal where the non-declaration of assets charges were instituted against Onnoghen.
Seeing no merit in the President’s explanation, the international community, including Nigerian major allies – the United States of America and the United Kingdom – joined in condemning the action which they believed was ill-timed.
The European Union, like the US and UK, expressed reservations about the legality of Buhari’s unilateral suspension of Onnoghen without the input of the National Assembly.
They also expressed reservation about the timing against the backdrop of speculation by the opposition parties that Buhari was out to take control of the judiciary ahead of the general elections in order to have it rubber-stamp his allegedly planned rigging of the results of the forthcoming elections.
Locally, the NBA at an emergency meeting of its National Executive Committee, condemned what it described as “the assault, intimidation and desecration of the judiciary by the executive arm of the Federal Government of Nigeria…”
The Presidency, the Federal Government through its Minster of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, and various allies of President Buhari, have, however, justified the suspension of the CJN pushing back insinuation that it was a ploy to hamstring the judiciary to do the administration’s bidding in post-election cases that would follow the general elections.
They alleged that the international community’s comments were not only hasty, but amounted to meddling in the internal affairs of sovereign Nigeria.
They added that the comments were bereft of appreciation of the depth of the corruption allegations against the topmost officer of the Nigerian judiciary.
However, with the elections fast-approaching, it is clear that the Buhari administration will need more than words to clear local and international doubts that it is ready to allow the judiciary to operate freely in the post-election days.
Culled from Punch
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