Wole Olanipekun, SAN and former president of the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, bares his mind on issues in the judiciary.
Interview by Wola Adeyemo and Juliana Uche-Okobi
There have been allegations of corruption against members of the bench and no one has been sanctioned, what happened?
It is strange; it would be bizarre to level such accusations of corruption against judges. But in our own clime, it is becoming a common occurrence that people say that judges are corrupt. The judges of old would (not have been accused) of corruption because in reality they were not corrupt. So it is so unusual to accuse judges of corruption. But what do we have now?
So what really accounts for the various allegations about corruption in the bench today?
I wouldn’t know. When did we start? I would say maybe because of the incursion of the military in politics. It is a combination of factors. One is the way and manner of picking judges.
Whose fault is it?
It is the fault of the system. It is the fault of the government, it is the fault of the national judicial council, it is the fault of each of the judicial service commissions of the state, it is also my fault. It is also the fault of each chief judge of a state; it is the fault of the chief justice of Nigeria and also the fault of those who recommended me because they know I should not have been there.
But before the executive made the announcement, they rely on advice of the judicial council?
In fairness to the executive, they do not even make announcements as such because most of the processes must have been completed before it gets to the executive but the executive has right not to approve. When I was the president of the NBA and we paid a courtesy call on (former president Olusegun) Obasanjo, I told him unequivocally that the executive has the right not to approve if you know that someone is not appointable. The executive has all what it takes. The executive controls the police, SSS which are to do all the investigations secretly. But let me say this, it signals the doomsday for any nation when you accuse the judiciary of corruption because justice is an attribute of God the most high.
Why is it impossible for it to be reduced so that people get sanctions so that others would take caution and stay away from corruption?
After World War II, what did America do regarding [Europe]? There was the Marshall Plan. The judiciary now needs Marshall Plan; a state of emergency has to be declared. We need rehabilitation, re-orientation, and we have to admit it. That will be in appreciation of the problems that are staring us in the face. The judicial reform committee put in place by Justice Musdapher was a right step in the right direction. But it is not all encompassing as it should be, and we are not able to tell the truth as we should. I presented a paper and I told them, let us look into the antecedents of those who come to the bar or go to the bench or those we make SAN. To some extent, law should be predictable. If A owes B, there are documents backing up the agreement between them. They should go to court and should not spend more than six months to get justice.
The feeling, however, is that trials in court get delayed by lawyers.
Yes and no. Trials in court at times get delayed by lawyers, but the judge is the master of the court and should apply the big stick. There might be delays not because the judge is necessarily corrupt but the judge might know what the law says, might not be indoctrinated in the nuances and ingredients of the subject matter before him or her. It is part of the problem of the system. People who have never practised law but because they have been 10 years old in the bar and have connections, their parents are influential, then it is payback time, you call their children, you put them on the bench and from there they move to the court of appeal and to the Supreme Court. What do you expect? I am not saying that this is what is happening globally but I am saying that the judiciary is not a place for one per cent inefficiency.
But we have had cases of lawyers who, because they were classmates of some judges, helped their clients to approach the judge.
We’ve had such cases and that is why I advocate within the NBA that anyone caught doing that kind of a thing should be disciplined, ‘de-robed’, disbarred. It is unfair of any lawyer to parrot the name of a judge in the presence of his client. But on the part of the judges too, to those who are corrupt, let them know. Nigerians talk too much. Any bribe money given to any person to (give to) a judge might have come through collections from people and within a short while it would spread. There are examples of good judges even now. It behoves every judge who we know is good to expose anyone on the bench who is corrupt.
Will the effort of the chief justice not lead to the Marshall Plan you talked about?
I don’t think so. I commend them but the judicial reform committee is not far-reaching enough. Look at the problem we have today between (Justices Aloysius) Katsina Alu and (Ayo) Salami, it is because judges are involved in some political matters. Nothing has damaged the judiciary more than their involvement in political matters. Left to me, I don’t believe the court of appeal should partake in political matters at all. Abacha did one thing but we decided to throw away the baby of Abacha with the bath water. He created a constitutional court, and that would have been the best thing that would have happened to Nigeria.
When appointments are to be made to the bench, and promotions to higher courts, even if the NBA does not have a voice, is it not possible for it to make a strong protest if it knows that some people do not merit it?
When I was the president of the NBA, the NBA Imo did protest against the appointments of some people and their protests were upheld. I also know that some years back, at the NBA meeting in Port Harcourt, the NBA NEC had to petition against the appointment of some judges. …I was in one court (recently) and I announced my appearance. I mentioned my name and mentioned that I. A. SAN would be appearing with me. The presiding judge asked me, ‘Are you a senior advocate too?’ The other judges were visibly embarrassed.
How strong is the national judicial council?
To me, the NJC, when you talk in terms of the individuals that come there, they are strong. When the NJC was established in 1999, I (initially) opposed it and my reason was that it was against the spirit of federalism. But I am not satisfied with the composition. I advocated this at the judicial reform committee and not until we change it. That is why we are having this problem with Katsina Alu and Salami. We are not addressing the issue. Who are the people at the NJC? Chief justice of Nigeria, chairman; justice of the Supreme Court, deputy chairman; president court of appeal, member; chief judge of the federal high court, member; president, national industrial court, member. You have the federal judicial service commission, FJSC. After the FJSC, all the personnel at the NJC are members (of the FJSC), and they make recommendations to NJC. The fundamental principle of law states that you must not be a judge in your own course – it is abnormal. Where [are] the checks and balances within the NJC and the FJSC?
The case of Katsina Alu and Salami appears to be hanging. The NJC advises the President and the presidency says until the cases in court are dispensed with. Has somebody’s fate not been left hanging?
Yes, somebody’s fate is left hanging. To be honest, Justice Salami deserves a glorious exit from the bench, having been a judge since 1979. He is a fantastic man, a brilliant man. But again, in everything we do in life, we have to be tactical. I as a lawyer, I will not condemn my colleagues who are his counsel. Every lawyer has his own style. My worry is this: Justice Salami is retiring next year – he will be 70. Every day is an eternity to him. Whether we like it or not, he is at the receiving end. My suggestion is this: attorney general has said there are cases in court. The highly respected Justice Uwais is saying the NJC does not need the permission of the President. To me, that is belated because the NJC had already written the President. Some of those cases in court were initiated by Salami himself, and if the NJC is ready to call him back then let them compromise the cases. The NJC says we are willing to recall him. What the NJC should have done would have been to submit to judgment, then send the judgment to the President to say he has won. He has taken us to court that we should not even have recommended his suspension to you.