Last week was an exceedingly exciting period in the historical annals of the Nigeria judiciary, because of the apparent ascension of the first female Chief Justice of the Federation. It was also a sad reminder on the apparent ills bedeviling a calling that thrives on the imagery of ethical behavior of its membership. But the opportunity of changing over of juristic robes provided a catalyst for a strategic unburdening by the just retired Chief Justice, Dahiru Musdapher, on an issue of much interest–being the Justice Isa Ayo Salami saga.
Lest we forget, this was when a single incident of a conversation between the former Chief Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and Justice Salami himself as President of the Court of Appeal, on the judgment tempering charge in the Sokoto governorship elections, only added another version of the sordid affair of judicial independence and integrity.
The problem then was how could three eminent jurist of the same peerage give a recount of a single incident that ends up being significantly different from their peers, yet they insist on the claim of truth expected?
For a profession that thrives on the perceptive image of its membership, the legal family has a very contradictory way of guarding and guiding its honor, integrity, and the fundamental ethos of its fold. In the nearly centurial history of the judicial profession, there has never been a time in Nigeria when such an honorable calling came under hostile glare of the public, due to the acts of commission or omission of its most senior membership, as the recent verdicts from the courts became.
First, what started as an unverified rumor within the circle of unlettered laymen, who assert the placement of price tags on judgments obtained from our virtuous temples of justice, by unconscionable judges that have sold their souls to the evil gods of corruption, was confirmed earlier in the year by Chief Joseph B. Daudu, the National President of the Nigerian Bar Association, during the valedictory session of Late Justice Anthony Aniagolu, at the no less a place than the hallowed chambers of the Supreme Court Complex, Abuja.
According to the outgoing leader of the Bar, the era of election cases witnessed the arrival of a new, if odd, phenomenon when former judges became liaising consultants to active justices on the bench, to negotiate the price of any judgment to be purchased, thus making a mockery of the age old adage: Justice is not for sale. Indeed, the situation now is that it is obtainable by the highest bidder. However, it was during the regime of the current republic, when the unethical behavior gained momentum in the behavioral psyche of the ever cautious conservative legal fold, for it is at this time, when the same Nigeria’s un-prosecutable Chief James Onanefe Ibori (apologies to former President Olusegun Obasanjo), had the temerity to cause the publishing of a supreme court verdict a day earlier to its deliverance, during the tenure of Chief Justice Muhammad Lawal Uwais, who had to institute an investigation over such incredible breach.
Perhaps, had the retired judge followed the attitudinal precedence of his earlier predecessors and an advice from an interview with the Late Justice Muhammadu Bello in 1992, it would have saved the greater judiciary the embarrassment of today, for the rare breed admonished judicial officers against consorting with politicians, as he stated: I respect them, but I prefer to deal with them from distance.
To be honest, the title of this exploratory treatise came from no less a personality than the Attorney General of the Federation, Mr. Muhammed Bello Adoke (SAN) who upon alighting from a journey to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, was cornered by journalist and interrogated on why he did not advice the president to put into effect, the directives of the National Judicial Council on the recall of Justice Isa Ayo Salami, the erstwhile President of the Nigerian Court of Appeal. His robust reply was that as the chief law officer of the government, he does not act on the whimsical urgings of a mob!
Although the clarion calls across the established media never withered until the annual democracy day ministerial briefing, for it was on that day Nigerians learnt of the reason why the government cannot give effect to the National Judicial Council directive, because it is a matter that is presumably sub-judice. However, impliedly the minister of justice was wearing the garb of a political adviser to the government, rather than that of the chief legal advisor of the Republic, and the least expectation of the offices of an attorney general, is a dispassionate interpretation of the position of law, before the availing of advices to the authorities on how to satisfy the demands of any legal matter. Indeed, even when the courts quashed any attempt at giving effect to the directive, the government’s chief legal adviser dithered in performing the functions of his office
Perhaps, we should now ponder on how we came to such sorry present, but the simple truth is that the long cherished professional ideals of the legal profession have long been subverted, for issues of reform from within have been in every report unveiled. A little observation of the employments trend on the bench, confirms the appointments of judges purely based on filial roots, as only spouses and scions of gentlemen in black robes get elevation to the higher bench, creating an erroneous perception that juristic erudition is beholden to lineal blood ties.
Indeed, the recently unveiled Uwais Judicial Reform Committee report alluded to such concern by its membership, which might have cajoled the immediate past Chief Justice of the Federation, to announce a national common entrance examination for all those aspiring membership to the judicial bench, because the fundamental requirements for qualification to be a judge should only training, character, honesty, piety, high philosophical knowledge and deep comprehension of jurisprudential thoughts.
For a Chief Justice of Nigeria who had promised reform on her senate confirmation hearings and as Justice Aloma Maryam Muktar settles in the inner chambers at the Supreme Court Building, graceful accepting congratulatory messages from the gentlemen of the bar and especially the bench, mostly there by virtue of any other reason than merit. It is pertinent to ponder at the year 1979 in her life, when mere chauvinism and preponderance of issue irrelevant to her competence, caused her to be bypassed into the office of Kano State Chief judge.
Indeed as fate has played it perfectly, it was the same Justice Dahiru Musdapher who bypassed her at the lower court, that destiny has enabled to be the individual who passes the baton of leadership of the Nigerian judiciary, evidently for the purpose of being the beacon of light that ennobles the courts as the impartial arbiters of justice.