Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Anarchy in the temple of justice

I am worried and all men and women of goodwill should equally be concerned about the creeping violence on the Nigerian judiciary especially the judges and the courts. It is fast becoming a norm for judicial officers or their family members to be assaulted in order to intimidate them from carrying out their lawful duty. Sometime ago, some judges in Delta State came under severe molestation by assailants. According to media reports, on August 7, 2012, a High Court judge, Marcel Okoh, was abducted and spent 10 days in his abductors’ den. Also, on Tuesday, December 3, 2012, another judge of the High Court, Marshal Mukoro, allegedly escaped death by the whiskers after his Sports Utility Vehicle was riddled with bullets by unknown assailants.  There was another case of Justice Azinge who purportedly escaped being kidnapped and had to run away from the court for months. Also, on Friday, May 10, 2013, unknown gunmen abducted the wife, daughter, and driver of a Supreme Court Justice, Bode Rhodes-Vivour. The victims were travelling to Edo State, ahead of the Justice’s daughter’s wedding ceremony. It is comforting that in all these instances, there was no fatality as those kidnapped were later released even though unconfirmed reports said after the victims’ families had paid ransom.
In the recent past, Rivers State has added to the list of environments hostile to the judiciary in the country. Courts, which are temples of justice, are being routinely vandalised and bombed in the crisis rocking the state. In 2013, a Magistrate’s Court in Okehi in Etche Local Government Area of the state was vandalised while files and other vital documents were set ablaze by unidentified arsonists. On December 18, 2013, an explosion reportedly rocked the premises of the Ahoada High Court under Justice Charles Wali. The same court on January 6, 2014 was bombed by unknown attackers. The blast affected the secretariat of the Nigerian Bar Association located within the court premises. The same day, another High Court in Okehi in Etche Local Government Areas was also set ablaze.  There were suspicions that the explosion and fire outbreak might not be unconnected with the involvement of the two courts in handling matters relating to the political crisis rocking the state.
It is not only physical violence that the Nigerian judiciary suffers from; the institution is also meted with psychological and structural violence. Some lawyers and litigants are in the habit of routinely maligning judges once the outcome of their matters in court is unfavourable to them. You will hear them castigate the judges that handled the matters during press interviews. They accuse the judges of “incompetence, indolence, corruption, nepotism” and all what not. Many of these allegations are unfounded and unsubstantiated. It is unbecoming of members of the bar, in collaboration with their clients, to openly castigate judges in the media when in actual fact there are open channels for them to seek redress if they are not satisfied with judgments of the courts.
The 1999 Constitution of Nigeria, as amended, has dedicated the whole of Chapter VII to issues concerning the judiciary. If anyone or institution is dissatisfied with the judgment of a court, there is a window of opportunity for appeals. If a foul play is suspected in the administration of justice, the lawyers and litigants have right to petition the heads of the courts be it Chief Judge of the State, President of the Federal High Court, Court of Appeal or Chief Justice of Nigeria. Also, they can write to the National Judicial Council to ventilate their grievances. I am by no means saying that there are no corrupt or indolent and incompetent justices and judges. Far from it!  What I am saying is that a more matured and effective means of seeking redress from miscarriage of justice should be explored by lawyers and litigants rather than bringing the judiciary to public disrepute. After all, the NJC has on several occasions recommended dismissal or compulsory retirement of some judges who, after due investigation, are found culpable of accusations leveled against them. It is nonsensical and puerile for lawyers, including members of the Senior Advocates of Nigeria to behave like mobs in a market place when they disagree with judgments of the courts. These lawyers and their clients are impugning on the integrity of the judges because they know that members of the bench are forbidden from joining issues with them in the media.
Aside from the highlighted psychological violence visited on judges, there is also structural violence. The three tiers of government led by the Federal Government deliberately underfund the judiciary. Statistics have shown that, funding of the judicial arm from the Federal Government has witnessed a steady decline since 2010, from N95bn in that year to N85bn in 2011, then N75bn in 2012 and dropped again in the 2013 budget to N67bn. I learnt the allocation for the judiciary in the 2014 budget is N68bn, a paltry N1bn more than last year’s. Whether the National Assembly will appropriate this for the judiciary remains to be seen. This amount is obviously inadequate given the infrastructural needs of the judiciary at the federal level. There is the need to build new courtrooms and refurbish dilapidated ones. There is also the need to appoint more judges as well as train and retrain both the judges and their support staffs. In many states, the sight of some courtrooms is repulsive. Some of them have no electricity and cooling systems, inadequate furniture, leaking roofs, unkempt court premises while the libraries are full of archaic books. This is distressing! Also disturbing is the undue politicisation of the appointment of judges and various heads of court by sacrificing merit for mediocrity.
These developments are an ill-wind that blows no good to anyone. The implication on the polity and society is grave as all these attempts to cow the judiciary and frustrate it from playing its constitutional role of adjudication without let or hindrance can make the aggrieved to resort to self-help. Judges and other judicial officers need a conducive environment devoid of fear and molestation to put in their best. That is the irreducible minimum government at all levels must provide in order to boost people’s confidence in the judiciary. It is not yet late in the day to reverse the ugly trend.