The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, assumed the leadership of the judiciary at a time when the institution was in the eye of the storm. Not only was his appointment delayed, he was also kept in suspense. Many feared that he would not get the appointment.
But a destiny child he is, the CJN did not panic knowing fully well that all appointments come from God. If it was His wish to be CJN, the appointment would come on its own. When many people took to the pages of newspapers to attack the Presidency for delaying his appointment, Onnoghen issued a statement asking them to show restraint.
Assuming the leadership of the judiciary shortly after houses of judges including that of Supreme Court justices had just been raided implied that he had a tough challenge in his hand. Becoming the CJN at such a difficult time in the history of the nation meant that, the new CJN had his job cut out for him.
However, one advantage of taking over the leadership of an institution in crisis is that it provides the new leader with a rare opportunity to prove himself not only as a problem solver but as an administrator. Therefore, the situation which Onnoghen inherited provided him with the opportunity to show the quality of leadership in him. In view of the quiet manner in which he stabilised the judiciary, many believe that he has not disappointed.
First, he tactically avoided joining issues with the executives. One of the easiest ways to continue to fan the ember of hostility between the judiciary and the executive was to keep exchanging tirades. Secondly, he insisted that rule of law must be the basis of engagement with other arms of government. While not opposed to investigating judges and the judiciary for corruption, Onnoghen insisted that rule of law be observed.
On November 10, 2016 when he was sworn in as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria by President Muhammadu Buhari, Onnoghen promised to join the fight against corruption and address misconduct in the judiciary. He also promised to introduce changes that would give the nation a befitting judiciary.
He said: “In this state of our development and with your programme, I assure you of the full cooperation of the third arm of government in the continuation of the war against corruption and misconduct in the judiciary. I intend to carry on where my predecessors stop, modify certain areas but with the general ultimate gain of having a better judiciary befitting the nation Nigeria.”
On March 7, 2015 when he was sworn in as the substantive CJN by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, who then was acting as president, Onnoghen renewed his promise to fight corruption in the judiciary. He however insisted that he would work as CJN in accordance with the rule of law.
The CJN had said: “As I stated earlier on the 10th of November, I pledge my loyalty to the FederalRepublic of Nigeria. There are three arms of government and these three arms belong to the same government. We should explore areas of cooperation to enable us move the country forward. On my part as the head of the judiciary, I assure you that from the past experience, the key to everything in a democratic setting is adherence to the rule of law. There lies the solution to our problems. Let us try to encourage the independence of the judiciary so as to ensure the rule of law. If everyone realises that they are subject to the rule of law and that there are certain things that are tackled according to the rule of law and behave accordingly, it will benefit all of us.”
As an experienced legal practitioner before he was appointed a judge, Onnoghen immediately brought to bear on his job as the CJN, his experience as a lawyer. He knew that the bench alone could not resolve the perennial and seemingly intractable challenge of slow pace of trial in our courts. This informed his decision to form a committee that comprises not only lawyers and judges but a member of civil society. The National Judicial Council Committee on the Monitoring of Corruption Cases.
That is an innovation that if sustains will dramatically change the frosty bar and bench relationship. This is because whatever the solutions proffers by the committee will enjoy a collective ownership of solution. Past efforts to address this problem fell short partly because the bench tried to impose its ideas on judicial reform on the bar.
After Justice Ayo Salami (retd) rejected the chairmanship of the committee, Justice Suleiman Galadima, who recently retired from the Supreme Court was appointed to replace Salami. With this initial hitch aside, the committee has set to work.
Already, the committee has started sitting. Among others, it has resolved to produce a new practice directions that will fast track the trial of cases involving corruption and financial crimes. As part of the committee’s decision to engage all stakeholders, it had also concluded plans to meet with the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission and other agencies with powers to prosecute in furtherance of its mandate.
The practice directions sub-committee of the committee has already commenced a review of various practice directions by leveraging on both local and foreign comparative jurisdictions to meet global best practice. The committee, after brainstorming on all the pending alleged corruption and financial crime cases submitted to it by the heads of court came to the conclusion that a new practice direction would be issued to judges handling the said cases.
The committee said, it was imperative that other critical stakeholders buy into the mission of the body, saying that regular updates and advocacy postings on sub-committees’ activities must be a permanent feature of the project. Many have criticised the committee as unwieldy because it has 15 members. Others did not like the idea that past the president president of the Nigerian Bar Association and past presidents were members of the committee.
With 2,306 on-going alleged corruption cases nationwide already submitted to the committee while may chief judges have yet to comply with the CJN’s directives to send such cases to him, no one should be left in doubt that this is not a task for three men. Besides, the issues involved are multifaceted requiring different experience and expertise.
Also, it is difficult to beat the experiences of the members of the committee. On this note alone, it is even more difficult to fault the CJN’s reasoning for making the committee this large. To facilitate its work, the committee has sub-divided into four sub-committees.The sub-committees are; Practice Directions, Training, Feedback and Engagement, and Awareness. The committee also divided the country into three zones for ease of monitoring and evaluation of the said cases.
The zones are: Zone A, Abuja FCT, Zone B, Northern Zone and Zone C, Southern Zone. At the last count, Zone A in Abuja has 554 pending alleged cases, Zone B has 347 cases, with Zone C having 1, 405 cases.
Justice Onnoghen isn’t going to solve all the problems facing the judiciary by setting up only a committee to fast-track looters trial. He needs to do more than that. Perhaps, the biggest legacy he can leave behind is to immediately set up an adhoc committee to review the salaries of judiciary workers. These workers are the engine room on which the judiciary depends to deliver an effective justice system. But for so long, they have been left behind. Many workers in the judiciary have difficulty paying their rents. This makes then vulnerable to lawyers who want to circumvent due process. The workers’ housing allowances must be upwardly reviewed. It must be done very urgently too. If this is done, the CJN will see a different judiciary.
The judiciary needs to be more proactive in its response to the demand of its audience. At present, the reactive nature of the judiciary is no longer serving the interest of this institution. Why waiting for judicial officers to commit a corrupt act when it is possible to stop the commission of that act? There is therefore the need to establish an inspectorate department in the NJC. This department will in turn give out direct numbers to court workers across the country and latter to the public to call in to report verifiable acts of judges that violate their codes of conduct. This sound radical, but the crisis in the judiciary requires a radical approach.
The judiciary can learn a lesson from the whistle-blowing policy introduced by the executive, borrow from it and with some modification adopt the approach.
. Joseph, a judicial affairs analyst, writes from Jos, Plateau State.