By Eze Ezeora
These are not the best of times for the Nigerian judiciary. Never in the history of the country’s polity has this third arm of government, whose biggest selling points are its impartiality, integrity, credibility, and independence, come to so much mistrust than at the present time. Yet, trust is the greatest ingredient of its justice dispensing role in society.
Recently, following very fractious general elections, the credibility of whose outcomes is being hotly contested in the various courts in the country, the mantra ‘go to court’ has become some sort of a snide catchphrase aimed at those who felt cheated in the process but are not expected to get redress in the courts. Already, some dodgy verdicts involving politically exposed persons in the last few years have agitated a large portion of the discerning public. Consequently, the recent confession by Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa – that he influenced his wife’s work to the advantage of his senator friends – only goes to confirm long-held views that there are rogue elements in the judiciary who have been compromised by a largely corrupt political elite into delivering judgements in their favour. And fingers point to top judicial officers in both the Bar and the Bench.
Senator Bulkachukwa is the husband of Nigeria’s first female president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, who retired in 2020 after what was hailed as a distinguished career as a jurist lasting 40 years until her husband practically pulled the rug from under her feet last week.
Senator Bulkachuwa, during his valedictory speech before the Senate on June 9, said: “I look at many faces in this chamber who have come to me and sought for my help when my wife was the president of Court of Appeal… so many names, we know ourselves. I must thank particularly my wife whose freedom and independence I encroached upon when she was in office, and she has been very tolerant and accepted my encroachment and extended her help to my colleagues.”
It took the repeated interruptions from Senator Ahmad Lawan, the outgone Senate president, to stop the octogenarian lawmaker representing Bauchi North Senatorial District from revealing more chilling details of what transpired behind the scenes. However, he had said enough to raise serious questions about the integrity of judicial officers, even at the highest levels, and the undue influence exerted on them by desperate politicians to obtain favourable verdicts from the courts in such a way that substantially subverts justice.
Despite the feeble denials offered by both spouses 10 days after the comments were made, this revelation calls for a frank and thorough examination of the judiciary to determine how deep corruption and influence peddling have eaten into the system.
Justice Bulkachuwa’s past actions belie the ethical standards of someone of her status. In 2019, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, had to get a court order to ensure Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa was removed from the presidential election tribunal hearing their petition due to her husband being a prominent card-carrying member of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and senator-elect for Bauchi north senatorial district. Also, in an interview published in the Sun of March 28, 2020, Justice Bulkachukwa said: “My husband is a politician but politics is a no-go area in the house… No politician is invited to the house” to ensure that no undue influence is brought upon her duties. Her husband’s recent revelation points to the contrary.
Following Senator Bukachuwa’s exposé, another senator whose wife is a judge, Senator Ali Ndume, claimed that fellow politicians have been pressuring him to lean on his wife for judicial favours but that he had declined.
Former Rivers State governor, Dr. Peter Odili, whose wife Justice Mary Odili, recently retired from the Supreme Court, was shielded by the courts from prosecution despite graft allegations against him, whereas many of his contemporaries sweated it out in court, with some bagging jail sentences like Rev Jolly Nyame of Taraba State and Joshua Dariye of Plateau State.
The implications of an unreliable judiciary can have devastating consequences on the nation’s security, economy and social order. Foreigners will fear to bring investments to Nigeria if they cannot trust to get justice from the courts in the event of trade disputes. And if citizens do not trust the courts to redress wrongs committed against them, they may resort to self-help which is a recipe for chaos.
I align with individual and organisations like the Nigerian Bar Association that have called for a proper inquest into the senator’s claims and a review of all cases handled by the retired Justice Bulkachuwa in the last five to ten years. We also frown at the National Judicial Council, which regulates the subsector, for ignoring this matter during their recent meeting.
We believe that Senator Bulkachuwa’s confession is a clarion call on all stakeholders in Nigeria’s judicial system to carry out comprehensive reforms that address the root causes of corruption and restore public trust in the judiciary.
One thing that needs stressing is for there to be a change in the manner of appointing and progressing of judges up the ladder. The era of nomination of justices on the basis of nepotism and political connections cannot continue. We suggest that they should be merit-based and that capacity, transparency and accountability should serve as the yardsticks. Only the most qualified and impartial individuals should ascend to the ladder of the bench.
The courts must regain their status as the last hope of the common man. For this to happen, the judiciary must purge itself of bad eggs.
Ezeora wrote from Alaigbo