Corruption is a cancer that has eaten deep into the fabric of our society. It is the hydra headed monster that continually ravages us.
It is the bane of our democracy. If we do not kill corruption, corruption will kill Nigeria. Well those are familiar clichés we have increasingly become accustomed to in our everyday lives as Nigerians. It is even more common because they relate to a problem that has become part of our everyday lives as Nigerians. Indeed no part of Nigeria is immune to the corruption cancer. Corruption is indeed the fastest growing industry in Nigeria. From the policeman asking for bribes on the highway, the civil servant asking for mobilisation fee, the recruiter asking for money to get government job, the electoral officers alleged to have collected huge sums of money to rig elections, the list could go on.
But there was one place we all expected to be free from the corruption virus: the courts of justice. The courts have long been hallowed as the last hope of the common man, the bastion of democracy, the temple of justice and it was the ultimate harbinger in cases of alleged corruption and other related malpractices. But alas we heard rumours that the court had been infected with the same rot ravaging democracy. We heard the common man was now without help as judgements could be bought like goods at auctions, falling to the highest bidder. We heard the ministers in the temple of that white robed goddess of justice now dined with the very men they were to put behind bars and that our democracy was heading for sure and inevitable failure.
At first they were just rumours but with time they slowly became reality as we saw judges sent on compulsory retirement before the time reached when they were to leave, we saw senior advocates derobed and each day we were greeted to further and even further tales of the rot in the bulwark of justice. As if to add salt to injury, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) promised to submit the names of justices who had collected bribes to obstruct the path of justice. Judicial corruption was ceasing to be a myth and was becoming a reality, an odious one at that. And the hope of the common man was gone! Destroyed by the very evil it was supposed to protect him against.
Justice is rooted in confidence, that is a trite fact. When the court has given its judgement, not only must justice be done it must be seen to have been done. The decision of the court must be in tandem with the reasonable man, the uninterested bystander, the man on the Clapham bus etc. The 1999 constitution grants us as one of our fundamental human rights the right to fair hearing. It provides in its Section 36 (1), “In the determination of his civil rights and obligations, including any question or determination by or against any government or authority, a person shall be entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time by a court or other tribunal established by law and constituted in such manner as to secure its independence and impartiality.”
It has long been stated that the only firm foundation upon which any democracy can be built is the rule of law. And rule of law required everyone to obey the law as interpreted by the regular courts of the land. But with judicial corruption fear arose that people would no longer obey such orders. None other than Justice Oputa had declared that the only other alternative to the rule of law is the enthronement of anarchy.
True that corruption had eaten deep into the judiciary affecting both the lower and higher courts of record; but how deep had it eaten. Is it the case that every rumour we heard was true. Has our courts lost every semblance of justice. Is all justice at an auction in Nigeria?
Various writers had already commented on the reality of judicial corruption in Nigeria and any interested reader need only look to the national dailies and relevant literature; I wish to focus rather on the myth of same.
We live in a nation where rumours rule the public opinion. Indeed at my alma mater we were told that in every rumour is an iota of truth. And when we are faced with hearsay rumours we do not wait to find out the validity or falsity of same, we immediately become unsolicited agents for the peddling of same in our respective rumour mills.
One other thing that rules the Nigerian public opinion is the belief in ethnicity and the conviction that it plays a role in our everyday lives. Also, the average Nigerian believes in a powerful cabal currently headed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo which can pervert the course of justice with just a phone call. He also believes that lawyers are liars—well this myth is as age long as the profession itself. And so any smart rumour monger need only combine his knowledge of these to concoct a rumour which would spread like wild forest fire during the harmattan season. I listen to several allegations of justice being sold and I cannot but laugh at the preposterous things they say, I wonder how they could possibly believe such jokes.
Again, the average Nigerian is not educated and does not bother to read the judgement or relevant statute before he cries injustice and when he finds like-minded wailers (which are never in scarcity) they can shout it from the rooftops. When they say a lawyer has been bought, he might just be fulfilling his professional responsibilities.
And I must say that if an Igbo man decides a case between another Igbo man and a Hausa man, the judgement must not favour anyone. Yes! It is a choice between Scylla and Charybdis—if the Igbo man wins the judge has favoured his brother; if the Hausa man wins, the judge is a saboteur who has been placed there by the Northerners to pervert justice. The average Nigerian is just so willing to easily and without waiting for reasonable justification allege judicial impropriety and corruption.
And worse still is the fact that the Bar which are supposed to be ministers in the temple of justice have not sought to protect the integrity of the temple but have been in the forefront of those who would not only harass it with frivolous appeals, incessant delays and adjournments but also solicit for bribes from their clients so they can influence the Justice and when he turns them down they cry corruption. There are members of the bar who, in criticising a Supreme Court decision, have brazenly said the Supreme Court committed an ‘illegality’.
The merits or demerits of their opinions are not in issue here but the word is so laden that it must be used with caution and not in such politically tense cases to criticise such controversial judgements. It is noteworthy that no one has come out to confess bribing a judge. We are the innocent ones and they are the greedy ones selling justice to feed their pot bellies. And it is pitiable that the court cannot protect itself.
I have identified the problem and do wish to here proffer some solutions.
A defence mechanism must be set up to protect the courts from frivolous allegations of corruption. And the Bar must be at the forefront of this mechanism. The members of the bar must be willing to sue anyone who alleges judicial corruption to prove it. If it is proved, the judge must be made to face the music, just as our President has stated he is ready to fight corruption no matter whose ox is gored. It does not matter how highly placed the judge is he must be brought to justice. But if it is not proved or proved to be false and unfounded the individual must be found liable for slander or libel; and I hope soon the legislature makes it a crime. Of course it would be encroaching fundamental human rights but I believe we can ask people to be responsible for what they say, considering that the aftermath of not asking them to be is anarchy and a breakdown of the state.
In this era of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, we must reassess the role of public opinion in influencing justice. This is a great philosophical issue. While public opinion was meant to be the guard dog which keeps the judiciary on their toes and accountable, it has now become a ravaging wolf threatening to destroy the judiciary and ultimately, our nation.
Laws and punishment are not the most effective way of modelling public opinion and perception. Orientation, or in this case reorientation, is the way. The NBA must partner the National Orientation Agency (NOA) and other well-meaning Nigerians to reorient the populace and ensure the masses begin again to trust our judiciary.
I hope to one day live in a Nigeria where our judiciary is not ravaged by corruption; WHERE JUSTICE IS NOT ONLY DONE BUT IS ALSO SEEN TO HAVE BEEN DONE.