Opinion

Wanted urgently: A biting judiciary

By Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

He waited for the right moment to strike, being the commencement of the new legal year of the Supreme Court and the conferment of the Rank of Senior Advocate of Nigeria on deserving applicants. The Honouable Chief Justice of Nigeria, The Honourable Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, threatened to unleash the judicial fang upon all those involved in undermining the authority and integrity of the judiciary. My Lord did not mince words at all, but as we do normally say, he spoke truth to power. What else could the judges have done or how else would they have complained, of the excesses of our security agencies and by extension, the executive branch of government? The matter reached the height of its ugliness, when on 29th October, 2021, security personnel stormed the residence of The Honourable Justice Mary Ukaegbu Peter-Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court. It would have ended like another Onnoghen saga, when the executive plotted the removal of a sitting Chief Justice of Nigeria through an ex-parte application, but for the vigilance of My Lord and her security men.

As has happened with other scandalous stories over the years, the dust is gradually settling over that inglorious invasion. But we cannot allow this monstrous confrontation between the forces of darkness and light to go away unraveled. The Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, had set up an investigative process and the Honourable Attorney-General of the Federation also promised to get to the root of the matter. To my mind, this was a deliberate affront against the third arm of the realm, as part of a political strategy to whip the judiciary in line as 2023 approaches. This was (and still remains) a reprehensible conduct, but the clear message has been sent by those bent on capturing the judiciary: ‘stay away from us’, ‘leave us alone’! This is not the gist of this piece however, but rather the courageous response from the judiciary to the desecration of the privacy of one of its precious jewels. I have followed My Lord, The Honourable The Chief Justice of Nigeria since he assumed office, and he rarely makes comments on burning national issues, in line with the ethics of his highly-revered office. But on this matter, My Lord has been speaking. He first spoke through his media aide.

“The Supreme Court last night broke its silence on the alleged unlawful invasion of Justice Mary Odili’s residence in Abuja by unknown security operatives, describing it as an “impunity taking too far.” The apex court warned that the judiciary should not be misconstrued by any individual or institution of government as the weeping child among the three arms of government. In a statement issued by its director of press and information, Dr Akande Festus, the apex court said the attack was uncivilized and a shameful show of primitive force on an innocent judicial officer.

The statement read in part, “We are alarmed with the news of the unwarranted and despicable raid on the official residence of one of our senior justices in the Supreme Court, Hon. Justice Mary Peter Odili, on Friday, 29” October, 2021 in a Gestapo manner.

“The attack unfortunately depicted a gory picture of war by some armed persons suspected to be security operatives representing different agencies of government who seemed to have come to kill and maim their target under the guise of undertaking a search whose warrant was questionable and baseless. “We are deeply saddened and taken aback by this uncivilized and shameful show of primitive force on an innocent judicial officer that has so far spent several years of her productive life serving the country she calls her own.

“This incident brought back, rather painfully, the ugly memory of the October 2016 midnight invasion of the homes of our respected justices with no satisfactory explanations as to the true motive behind such brazen assault on our collective sensibility.

“We wish to make it abundantly clear that the Nigerian Judiciary is the third arm of the government of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and should be respected and treated as such. “We have had a full dosage of this fusillade of unwarranted and unprovoked attacks on our judicial officers and even facilities across the country and we say it loudly now that enough is enough.”

“The judiciary should never be misconstrued by any individual or institution of government as the weeping child among the three arms of government that must always be chastised and ridiculed to silence because of our conservative disposition. “The Nigerian judiciary cannot only bark, but can also bite. We can no longer be treated with disdain and levity. The rule of law and constitutionality must govern our conduct so that we can tag along with the comity of nations and be taken seriously too,” he said.

I read the above statement over and over again, praying that I would not wake up the next day to learn that it was some ‘fake news’ or that it was an unauthorized statement, but it has come to stay. Let us review some of the words used in the above statement, such as ‘uncivilized’, ‘brazen’, ‘despicable’ and ‘shameful show of primitive force’. The executive has crawled behind its dark curtains since this statement was made, which directly accused its operatives of the stage-managed attack. For me and I guess many others, the high point of this statement is the open declaration that the judiciary is not ‘a weeping child’ that screams helplessly whenever it is threatened but also the assurance that ‘the Nigerian judiciary can not only bark but can also bite.’

Judges should stop barking so loudly and so helplessly to the point of losing their voices. It is time to bite and bite in such a way that some flesh will be scrapped off by the teeth. From the look of things and going by the record of the present administration, it would seem that the judiciary fared better under the military regime. In this same country, The Honourable Justice Dolapo Akinsanya (God bless her gentle soul) declared the contraption called Interim National Government illegal. Right in the thick of the raging jackboot of the military dictatorship, The Honourable Justice Dahiru Musdapher (God bless his gentle soul), at the Court of Appeal in Lagos, thundered down on the obnoxious State Security (Detention of Persons) Decree No. 2 of 1984 and the heavens certainly did not fall. Our Judges need to bite and sink their sharp teeth very deep into the neck of impunity and lawlessness. We certainly cannot continue like this as a nation, where everyone in authority has become a form of mini god unto themselves as if there is no one in control or to be held accountable.

In 2020, The Honourable Justice Ijeoma Ojukwu, then sitting at the Federal High Court, Abuja, granted bail to Omoyele Sowore but the Department of State Security clannishly subjected the order of the court to very embarrassing interpretations while holding on to the defendant in custody. The nation and indeed the international community waited with bated breath for the action to be taken by the judge to assert the reputation and authority of the Court. My Lord wasted no time in issuing an order to the DSS to release Sowore within twenty-four hours. The order was complied with promptly and that ended all the drama. So, let our judges begin the biting, as a way of terminating all vestiges of impunity in our land. The Courts exist to call to order all deviant behaviours that tend to reduce us as humans.

A lot of our colleagues have raised the vexed issue of the professed timidity of judicial officers in the face of executive interference. This has been going on for a while and we cannot continue to indulge the executive arm and indeed all those who ridicule the temple of justice with oppressive conduct. Something has to give way. By virtue of the Constitution, the executive enjoys only a limited tenure, being a maximum of two terms of four years, but the judiciary is stable and consistent in its decisions and general policy thrust. This being the case, we should not have an executive that is breathing down on the judiciary, being the only arm of government that succeeds the other arms. So, the high and mighty should feel the impact of a vibrant judiciary that can bark and bite, or else the egregious policy of might is right will continue unchecked.

Beyond press statements, the judiciary through the CJN should make an official demand upon the executive arm to unravel the perpetrators of the invasion of the home of The Honourable Justice Peter-Odili, with a view to bringing them to book. If nothing else, at least the Magistrate that granted the purported search warrant is a member of the judiciary who is still alive. In many cases, the tendency of a man entrusted with power is to gravitate towards abuse or extreme exercise thereof. This is why Lord Acton stated that power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and great men are often bad men. An executive left unchecked by the judiciary is like setting a lion loose. We cannot afford that in Nigeria, given the primitive use of power by the elite. Majority of our people are indigent and in the hinterlands, deprived of their rights and opportunities by the strong and mighty, on a daily basis. Our judges must look at power in the face and speak truth to it. This is why I endorse the statement of the The Honourable The Chief Justice of Nigeria that our courts should stand up to confront all cases and circumstances of abuse of power, when he stated as follows, at the swearing in of the new Silks on 10th December, 2021:

“The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad has warned that Nigeria’s judiciary has had enough of embarrassment of its Judicial officers and would not take kindly to a repeat of any ugly treatment from security operatives. He warned that the silence of the judiciary should never be mistaken for stupidity or weakness. Justice Muhammad spoke on Wednesday in Abuja on the occasion of the start of the 2021/2022 legal year held at the Supreme Court.

“On a very sad note, I must say, we were jolted with the embarrassing news of the invasion of the official residence of one of our brother Justices, Hon Justice Mary Peter Odili, on Friday October 29 by men suspected to be security operatives, acting on a search warrant. The said warrant was purportedly obtained from an Abuja Magistrate court under questionable circumstances. I must make it known to all and sundry that we have had enough dosage of such embarrassment and harassment of our Judicial officers across the country and we can no longer take any of such shenanigans. The silence of the judiciary should never be mistaken for stupidity or weakness.”

“The time to oppress, suppress and intimidate judicial officers is gone. No one, irrespective of his or her status or position in the country, should test our will because the consequences of such unwarranted provocation will be too dire to bear. We shall begin to resist any clandestine attempt to silence or ridicule us to oblivion. Nigeria, to the best of my knowledge, is not a lawless society. We should begin to do things that will project us favourably and rightly too, to the international community.”

Though I leaped up with joy in my heart reading through the vows of the CJN to defend the judiciary, it will remain in the realm of barking, if nothing is done thereafter to assert the powers that the judiciary possesses. If we are to get Nigeria back on the path of sanity, we must begin to see a judiciary that can bite in such a way that all errant power monsters will cringe. Our courts must rescue Nigeria from any emerging trend of dictatorship. This is why the judgment of The Honourable Justice Anwuli Chikere, which nullified the acts of the DSS against Omoyele Sowore, is commendable in all its ramifications. All forms of impunity must stop and those who have the power to stop them, according to the laws of Nigeria, are the judges. My Lord The Honourable The Chief Justice of Nigeria, let the courts bark and bite, henceforth.

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