When judges become the judged

When judges become the judged

  • Written by  Joseph Ajayi
  • Monday, 11 March 2013 13:17

Joseph Ajayi in this piece examines the travails of the sacked Judges, the ironical intrigues this throws up and what it portends for the Judiciary and the nation at large.

IN the literary world, which is seen as a reflection of life, certain events are qualified by what is called literary terms. Thus when in a play or narrative, there is a sudden reversal of fortune in which, for instance, a change from stability and happiness to destruction or downfall occurs the fictional language for qualification is peripeteia.  The protagonist in this kind of creative effort is often the victim, perhaps due largely to his tragic flaw which eventually makes him a tragic hero at the end of such work.

The foregoing aptly captures the dramatic suspension of Justice Charles Archibong of the Federal High Court, Lagos and Justice T.D. Naron of the High Court of Justice, Plateau State by the Federal Government, pursuant to the recommendation by the National Judicial Commission (NJC). The duo are the protagonists, whose tragic flaws, as pinpointed by the NJC, were their controversial judgements on the cases involving ex-Osun State governor, Prince Olagunsoye Oyinlola  versus the incumbent, Rauf Aregbesola and former Managing Director of Intercontinental Bank, Erastus Akingbola which not a few described as not only embarrassing, but a dent to the judiciary,

Naron, who handled the case between Oyinlola and Aregbesola, was reported to have, ad infinitum, exchanged calls with the lead counsels during the election petition tribunal sitting in Osun. “The communication was for one of the parties to the suit in the Osun State Governorship Election Tribunal and Naron’s phone logs showed that he was in constant communication with Kalejaiye”, the report stated,  adding that Naron latter dismissed the petitioner’s claim and declared Oyinlola the validly elected winner of the 2007 governorship election. According to the NJC, Naron’s action was contrary to Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers vide Section 292 (1) (b) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as amended.

Justice Archibong’s greatest undoing was his dismissal of the grievous corruption charges levelled against Akingbola even without taking the banker’s plea. This coupled with other allegations which the judiciary considered gross violations of the ethics of the profession.

Over the years, the judiciary has been an object of public opprobrium following several judgements delivered by some Judges which many a person considered controversial and smacked off widespread corruption in the law enforcing arm of the government. Drawing the ire and consternation of the general public, more than any other, was the recent judgement by Justice Abubakar Talba of Abuja High Court in which former Deputy Director of Pension Office, Yakubu Yusuf, who stole N27.2 billion, was lightly punished with a fine of NN750,000.

So vociferous was the condemnation of the judgement that the NJC was forced to set up a fact-finding committee to investigate allegations brought against Talba for delivering what many regarded a ludicrous judgement. However, as indicated in the latest report, Talba may have escaped the heavy anvil of the Nigerian Bar Association and NJC as he was cleared of any wrong in the judgement.

With recently reported threats by the Chief Justice of the Federation, Justice Aloma Mukhtar, that more heads would still roll in the judiciary in a bid to restore the lost glory of the Commission, an indication pointing to the subjection of Chief Kalejaiye, the lawyer indicted in Naron’s case, to the Legal Practitioners Disciplinary Committee, all seems to be going the wrong way for some judges in Nigeria. The tide of judgement which used to be at their beck is now turning against them. It is now, for them, the case of a trial master being tried himself; a reversal of fortune as literary scholars would put it.

As the duo of Archibong and Naron were being made to pay for their misdemeanours by the NJC, some men of the bar bared their minds on their dismissal and what such portends for the commission and the country at large.

In a swift reaction to the dismissal of the two judges, Lagos lawyer, Mr Femi Falana, in a statement, described NJC’s decision as “a determined move to restore confidence in the judiciary of the country.

“The NJC has sent a clear message that the days of the judicial impunity are over. We, therefore, call on President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Jonah Jang to approve the retirement of Justice Archibong and Justice Naron respectively as recommended by the NJC”, he added.

While also commending the recommendations, the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders, through its Executive Chairman, Mr Adeniran Debo, had said: “This is a giant stride by the NJC to rid our bench of the bad eggs. It is a welcome development that the NJC is now waking up to its responsibilities. The sack of Justice Naron and his colleague will go a long way to restore the hope of the masses in the judiciary”.

Speaking further, he said: “It is, however, worthy of note that these two judges are not the only ones delivering kangaroo judgements, the NJC should beam its searchlight on other judges who have become compromised and flush them out of the bench, if we must win the war against electoral and other forms of corruption in the country.”

In an interview with the Nigerian Tribune, the NBA president, Okey Wali, said the retirement of the two judges was sequel to the petition by the association to the NJC over the unprofessional misconduct of the duo. “I am totally in support of the compulsory retirement granted them. It was recommended by the NBA which particularly petitioned the government for the retirement of Archibong”, Wali stated.

On whether there is widespread corruption in the judiciary, Wali said he was not aware of such, but added that the NBA was set to reposition the judiciary and ensure the arm was rid of few bad eggs in it.

Fielding question on whether the action by the Federal Government to sack the judges was right or wrong, former President, Campaign for Democracy ( CD), Comrade Moshood Erubami, said it was an appropriate and quick step by the government, adding that what the judges did was a shame to the posts they were occupying.

“It was appropriate for the government committed to enthroning the human rights of the people and ensuring that such are protected. It is coming at a time Nigerians are looking up to the judges as the last hope of justice.

“Corruption is not just about theft of money; it is a denial of certain things which one is supposed to do. In other words, it is a monopoly of discretion minus accountability. So, they are facing trials because some of them are corrupt. The government, therefore, acted appropriately to show deterrents to others in these unholy acts”, Erubami maintained.

As to whether the government’s widely believed interference in the affairs of the judiciary made the judges tick, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) spokesman would not think so as the public, according to him, only acts on the facts available to it. “There were no facts available to us on what transpired in the closed door. We only saw that their judgements were ridiculous”.

Also speaking to Nigerian Tribune on the trials of the judges, Head, Department of Public and International Law, University of Ibadan, Mr Oluwole Akintayo said there was nothing new in the removal of the erring judges since the Constitution itself talks about the removal of judges in certain circumstances.

Frowning on what he termed treating issues with kid gloves, Mr Akintayo said if allegation of corruption was confirmed in the case of Archibong and Naron, the removal should be the proper thing and not just compulsory retirement. “If the allegation is established, dismissal should not be the end. There must be punishment and proper execution. Former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, was executed for corruptive practices in office and if any judicial officer is found guilty of corruption, he should also be prosecuted.

“In prosecuting corrupt public official in this manner, the law that does not give an option of fine should be used so as to discourage such practices public officials. A prosecution in which an option of fine, referring for instance to Yakubu Yusuf’s  fine of N750,000 after stealing billions of Naira does not augur well for the country and its future.

“Now if you say erring public official is given compulsory retirement or dismissed, what happens to the newly introduced Contributing Pension Scheme? How does this take care of his or her contribution? Although Judges are not brought under this scheme, the terms used are not adequate enough to deal with corrupt public servants. Prosecution would ensure a forfeiture of whatever entitlements such corrupt people have and this is the only way to quell corruption in Nigeria”, Mr Akintayo disclosed.

Quizzed on the discipline handed the two Judges, a lecturer in Law Faculty, Mr Abiodun Osuntogun, who preferred sitting on the fence about the matter, however, said the independence of the Judiciary did not mean Judges should not be disciplined for committing an offence, but that their subjection to discipline should not jeopardise their independence to perform their functions.

To him, judges are learned people who should not be forced to write letters of retirement under whatever circumstance. “They are masters of the law. And if they err, the mechanism for discipline must be done in a fair, legal and constitutional manner. And if they come with letters of retirement themselves, there must be something amiss which we may not be aware of.

As reactions continue to trail the  compulsory retirement of Archibong and Naron and intrigues gather momentum about more Judges that may likely face music for past corruptible practices, what would always be of interest to the general public is the ironical and reversal dimension the trials of those whose sole job is to try others is taking. Intrigues this may be as more scenarios unfold

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