Judicial Corruption and Elite Widespread Dissent

by Ayo Olukotun
Opinion is sharply divided, even among senior lawyers, about the legitimacy, propriety, legality and decorum of last week’s raid by the Department of State Services on the official quarters of judges around the country, and the subsequent arrest of the judges. 

Monitoring the controversy, it is helpful to narrow the heated debate down to disagreement over the method, Gestapo-style, some have called it, of apprehending the judges, not the least because the “operation” in Port Harcourt, for instance, took place around 1am on Saturday.

The DSS maintains that, what it erroneously called a “sting operation” is justified by the recovery of huge amounts in foreign and local currencies from the home of the judges. 

In other words, the end, “evidence”, with which to prosecute the judges, who were subsequently released on bail, justifies the unorthodox and somewhat alarming means used to procure the “evidence”. On one side of the divide are those like Prof. Itse Sagay (SAN) and Femi Falana (SAN) who insist that the travails of the judges and by extension, the judiciary, were brought on by their failure to carry out internal cleansing of corrupt judges.

In collusion with blue chip senior lawyers, the judiciary or at least a growing number of judges have waxed fat on bribes offered by those who will like to procure election verdicts in their favour. This apart, it is argued that the National Judicial Council, which ought to discipline judges, would appear to have been less than vigilant. 

As Falana expressed it: “Having failed to take advantage of the relevant statutory disciplinary bodies to purge the Bar and the Bench of corrupt elements, the members of the legal profession have themselves to blame for the harrassment of judges by security forces”. Sagay insists that the Nigerian Bar Association, which is currently on the offensive against government action, should bury its head in shame, having colluded with corrupt judges to prevent cleansing of the Bench. Sagay went on to say that the NJC can only deal with “normal situations” ; what we have on our hands however, is a case of entrenched corruption, not amenable to the powers and purview of the NJC.

Well said, Sir, but if pushed to its logical conclusion, we may well be calling for dictatorship in one form or another. Indeed, most dictatorships, including the several cycles of military rule in Nigeria, have legitimated themselves by counterposing to the prevailing rottenness, an advertised higher moral order. In the end, as we know, the promised moral order never materialises, as state and society descend into a cesspit of corruption, worse than the one that was overthrown.

Critics of the raid, on the other hand, support the anti-corruption agenda of the Buhari government, in respect of the corrupt judges, but insist that decent methods must be employed, to avoid what this columnist once described as the “corruption of anti-corruption”. On this side of the divide, is Emeritus Professor of Journalism, Olatunji Dare, who on Tuesday, wrote that, “A comprehensive purge of the judiciary was surely indicated. But not with the tactics the DSS employed lately”. Dare went on to liken the raid, to “working a slippery slope along which only a dangerous descent is guaranteed”. The point of view of this columnist is closer to the critics of the raid, at the same time, as I would uphold the urgency of cleansing the Judiciary.

Let us bear in mind that the Nigerian state does not, to borrow a term popularised by the late Greek academic, Nicos Poulantzas, have “relative autonomy” from factions of the political class. That is another way of saying that state institutions are highly politicised and immature, and can be sent on missions, even of vengeance by political warlords. Recall for example, that under the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, the DSS carried out infamous acts, as the raid on one of the Lagos offices of the All Progressives Congress. 

That wanton act was justified on the grounds of national security. Under the current administration of President Muhammadu Buhari, controversy has trailed such actions as the invasion by the DSS of the Presidential Lodge of the Akwa Ibom State House. That implies that political partisanship and arbitrariness can easily be passed off as part of the fight against corruption, in a polity where the rule of strong men rather than the rule of law prevails. The confrontation in Port Harcourt between the Rivers State Governor, Nyesom Wike, and the state security operatives, in the course of the recent raid, opens a line of enquiry, if we take into account, the long running conflict between the Minister of Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi, and Wike himself. As known, the most partisan actions can be clothed in a garb of high purpose.

But let us go on to weightier matters, by asking the question: Who corrupted the judges? Can the judiciary, lightening raids apart, be cleansed outside of a thorough going anti-corruption programme that addresses the bribe giver and the bribe taker? That is to say that, short of an even-handed and non-partisan anti-corruption war, trying to sanitise the judiciary may simply be a waste of time as it will yield little result. Furthermore, can we explain judicial corruption in relation to election matters especially, without taking into account the conditions of service of judges and distressing work environment, which predispose them to moral perfidy? Another way of looking at the issue is to ask why there is such an obscene gap between political office holders and the professional class. 

For the avoidance of doubt, and as The Punch editorial affirmed on October 12, corrupt judges should be brought to book speedily, as it is the practice around the globe. Judges are not immune from obeying the law, or for that matter from prosecution. They should however, in institutional terms, be protected from the vulgarity of demeaning treatment, that exposes the institution to public ridicule and contempt. All the more so, as such actions evoke tragic chapters in our national history when institutions of state and the civil society were brutalised, repressed and hounded.

If we are serious about tackling judicial corruption, as indeed all forms of political corruption, what are required, include, moral purpose of a leadership that is not weakened by partisanship and national ownership of the reform agenda. These are not enough, there must be constant dialogue among stakeholders in the justice sector, in order to reassure those concerned that the reforms are not threats but quality assurance and capacity building initiatives. Such dialogues, will necessarily include ways of strengthening and giving more teeth to the NJC, so that it can bite and be more effective. That apart, within the context of building a National Integrity System, benchmarks should be set, using an incremental approach that monitors compliance and progress.

As Transparency International has repeatedly advocated, digitisation, as well as automation, in which judgments can be electronically recorded and reviewed, can help to minimise judicial abuses. Finally, the civil society should be mobilised for buy-in support into efforts to minimise and sanction corruption among our judges. That is a different ball game from the recent dodgy methods, whose negative reverberations may outweigh their limited gains.

Ayo Olukotun