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OPINION: Nigeria’s Naked Supreme Court



By Lasisi Olagunju

When politicians tell lies in election nomination forms and dare exasperated wailing wailers to go to court, they know what they are saying. The courts are dead. Anyone, today, can tell who will never lose a case in Nigeria whatever offence they commit. A virtual Àkúdàáyà (the dead living with the living) can seek to be king of Nigeria; with the appropriate wink, our courts will have no problem declaring the ethereal a prince and heir apparent. In the rubble of our courts are rodents and lizards and even snakes. A recent protest letter by 14 highly regarded justices of the Supreme Court against the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) confirmed that the house of the Nigerian judiciary has also become food for termites. I am sure no one in Nigeria is surprised at the revelations made by the justices. My people say a cleric, an Aafa, could not be burnt beyond recognition and you would be demanding to see his beard. The house of the Nigerian court couldn’t have stood after the magnitude 9.0 moral earthquake that has levelled Nigeria, a country that was.

American journalist, Karl Maire, twenty years ago, wrote ‘This House has Fallen: Nigeria in Crisis.’ A reviewer described the 327-page book as a gripping account of the crisis in a country that is “always on the edge of a nervous breakdown.” Psychiatrists will nod and shake their heads here. Karl Maire possibly thought in 2002 that he had seen the worst anyone could see of a country in comprehensive turmoil. In 2022, what we have are the ruins of beauty and sanity; the physical representation of a betrayal of promise. After conquering the Nigerian geographical space with all that inhabit it; the powerful have extended their conquest to the realm of justice. They impoverish the courts to gain control of the law. Judges now eat from hand to mouth while their courts beg to breathe; they are like masquerades without masks. The last time judges’ salaries were reviewed was 2008; that was fourteen years ago. A dollar exchanged for N117 in 2008; it is N600 today. Judges in many states hear only of medical and vacation allowances. It is strange, I used to envy them! But a badly paid workforce will design ways of claiming its right wages. And this is where we all lose. The courts have become so cheap that politicians wantonly use them to legitimise their breach of the law. All nations and empires where this was allowed to happen became footnotes of history.

Persia was one of the most powerful empires of the ancient world. History says that “at its height, it encompassed the areas of modern-day Iran, Egypt, Turkey, and parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Today, where is it? It sank into ruins when the law repeatedly groveled before kings and kings became emperors without leashes. There was a king of Persia who wanted to do what no one had ever done in his empire: He desired to marry his own full sister and wanted to use the law to make it lawful. So, he summoned all the judges in the land and asked them if there was any law preventing him from taking his sister for a wife. This king was recorded as evil, wicked and murderous. His reign terrified everyone, including the royal courts and their operatives. The judges knew they would die if they told truth to power in its very raw form. They also knew they would lose their honour if they told a lie to the king. So, they ‘borrowed themselves sense’ and wrapped shit in golden foil for the king to eat. Herodotus said the judges answered the taboo-breaking king that “they could find no law enjoining a brother to marry his sister; but that they had found a law permitting the King of Persia to do whatever he liked.” That king, Cambyses, picked what aligned with his desire from the judges’ answer and did what he liked. Leaders whose talents lie in doing whatever they like by subverting the law always end disgracefully. But there is a way they drag everyone along with them to perdition. History says that Cambyses ended badly but not before he skinned a judge accused of corruption. Herodotus in his fifth book said the king cut the throat of Judge Sisamnes, skinned him and proceeded to use the skin to cover the judge’s bench. On that bench, the late judge’s son was asked to sit as judge with the admonition that the young man should “keep in mind the nature of the throne on which he was sitting.”

That was for a king. It is in the nature and history of kings to hate the law or struggle with it. But judges are chosen to use the law to rein in kings from free-roaming and becoming threats to the state and to themselves. What then happens when judges become law entrepreneurs and graduate to big men who are disdainful of the law? I asked that question after watching the CJN and the 14 justices of the Supreme Court dance naked in the market square over money matters. The justices wrote and suggested that the CJN was running the apex court without probity. The CJN replied and accused them of dancing naked in the market square. Geoffrey Chaucer, in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, asks: “If gold rusts, what then can iron do?” He adds that if a priest on whom utmost trust is placed is found to be foul, should we be surprised that “a lewd man” is decidedly bad? (“That if gold ruste, what shal iren do?…/For if a preest be foul, on whom we truste,/No wonder is a lewed man to ruste”). How would it look if we saw a priest in a clubbers’ outfit with a prostitute as his cozy companion? Seven years ago, there was uproar when a leak revealed that properties belonging to the Vatican in Rome were “operating as seedy saunas and massage parlours where priests pay for sex.” The uproar was not because of the sex, it was because of the perceived ‘holiness’ of the persons who patronised the brothels. We are used to hearing and reading dirty stories in Nigeria. The stories are so commonplace that they neither make viable headlines again nor do they sell. This Supreme Court scandal is in the news mentioned because the gentlemen with sores who are eating the flies of the CJN are solemnly addressed as ‘My Lords Temporal.’

Fourteen very senior Supreme Court justices wrote and gave a long list of complaints – all pointing at a system-collapse, like NEPA. They wrote and told the CJN that “this is the peak of the degeneration of the court; it is the height of decadence, and a clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude…” at the apex court. They said more and more and ended the letter with a threat: “Finally, Your Lordship, the choice is now yours. It is either you quickly and swiftly take responsibility and address these burning issues or we will be compelled to take further steps immediately. May that day never come.” The threat got me alarmed. And I thought the addressee should get the hint too. What was the CJN’s response? He fired back at his “brother justices” labelling their protest as a naked dance in the market place. He added something that strikes me: “The Supreme Court definitely does not exist outside its environment…it is also affected by the economic and socio-political climate prevailing in the country.” What does this tell you about the sacred bathing in profane waters; about the holy carousing whores? If the Supreme Court of Nigeria is this dirty, to which river shall we take it to wash? Nothing dampens one’s spirit more than discovering that the idol you fear, adore and worship is, indeed, made of clay.

Just a month ago, a retiring justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Ejembi Eko, sensationally spoke about what he called “internal fraud” in the management of the resources of the judiciary in Nigeria. Justice Eko uttered those words in the very presence of the CJN and other justices of the Supreme Court and in the hallowed premises of that court. He asked the Independent Corrupt Practices and other related offences Commission (ICPC) and other investigative agencies to probe the fraud going on there. This is how he said it: “My lords, the Heads of Court in the Federation have enormous budgetary resources from which they can improve the welfare of serving judges. As it is currently, and as the Director of Budget in the Federal Ministry of Finance disclosed recently at the memorial lecture in honour of the late Abdullahi Ibrahim, SAN, it is baffling that the welfare of judges remains in abject state in spite of the increase of the budgetary allocation to the judiciary under this regime. Why? The said director of budget suggested that the panacea to the often touted under-funding of the judiciary would be for ‘the judiciary to allow its books to be opened’ by the relevant authorities. This clearly is an allusion, albeit an indictment, pointing to the internal fraud attending to the management of the budgetary resources of the judiciary. Nothing stops the office of the Auditor-General of the Federation, the ICPC and other investigating agencies from opening the books of the judiciary to expose the corruption in the management of their budgetary resources. That does not compromise the independence of the judiciary. Rather, it promotes accountability. In most jurisdictions, the Chief Registrars regard themselves as direct subordinates of even the spouses of Heads of Court and allow themselves to be directed willy-nilly in the vandalism of the judiciary’s budget.”

Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels has very unflattering words for some judges. He writes that they “are picked out from the most dexterous lawyers who are grown old or lazy.” He adds that “having been biased all their lives against truth or equity, (they) are under such a fatal necessity of favouring fraud, perjury and oppression…” Judges who give judges a slap in the face, who assist politicians to break the law and evade justice and undermine decency are symbols of shame. Fiery Lagos lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, told The Punch yesterday that the justices’ nude dance was “unprecedented in the annals of our history.” I think he was right. If you know any other country or age or civilisation where judges ‘slap’ one another like this, come out and tell us. When adults dance naked in the public, society wastes no time checking their sanity. This is not to condemn the fourteen judges for their courage and candor in speaking truth to power. Nigeria routinely does what the system has done to the judges; it is a mad house where to be properly clothed is taken as very unnatural. There is no value too sacred for Nigeria to destroy. It has happened to our Supreme Court, Nigeria’s highest court which used to be the very symbol of piety in conduct, of clarity of thought, of elegance of language and purity in deliverance of justice. We know now that the court is an ex-gold, a pearl rusted by the greed and filth of its emperors.

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