The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Muhammad, yesterday assured Nigerians that the Supreme Court under his watch will never be subservient to any person in Nigeria or another arm of government.
He also warned government at all levels and their agencies against the continued disobedience to court judgments, saying it is time for them to obey the rule of law and court judgments.
The declaration of the CJN, who spoke yesterday in Abuja at a special session of the Supreme Court marking the 2019/2020 Legal Year, came against the backdrop of the growing perception by many that the judiciary, including the Supreme Court, have been cowed by the executive could not effectively discharge its functions.
The perception was fed by the perceived underhand tactics allegedly employed by the presidency to oust Justice Muhammad’s predecessor, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
The highlight of yesterday’s event was the inauguration of 38 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), amongst whom are the Solicitor-General of the Federation and Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Justice, Dayo Apata; wife of a justice of the apex court, Adedoyin Rhodes-Vivour, and Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa.
However, standing out among those who graced the occasion was Justice Sylvester Ngwuta who returned to the Supreme Court three years after he stepped aside to face trial for corruption.
But Muhammad, in his speech on the state of the judiciary delivered yesterday, said though he might have assumed office as CJN, “after the unfortunate events that shook the Nigerian judiciary to its foundation,” he was determined to leave behind a justice system that would be the pride of all.
Speaking on the independence of the judiciary, Muhammad said: “The Nigerian judiciary, to a large extent, is independent in conducting its affairs and taking decisions on matters before it without any extraneous influence.
“At the Supreme Court, like I have always said, we are totally independent in the way we conduct our affairs, especially judgments. We don’t pander to anybody’s whims and caprices. If there is any deity to be feared, it is Almighty God.
“We will never be subservient to anybody, no matter his position in the society.”
The CJN, however, admitted that the judiciary cannot enjoy or know true independence if it has to beg for funds to run its office, as the current situation portrays.
He said: “It is like saying a cow is free to graze about in the meadow but at the same time, tying it firmly to a tree. Where is the freedom?”
The CJN appealed to governments at all levels to “free the judiciary from the financial bondage it has been subjected to over the years.”
“Let it not just said to be independent but should, in words and actions, be seen to be truly independent. We would not like to negotiate our financial independence under any guise,” he said.
The CJN also used the occasion to stress the need for all to adhere to the tenets of the rule of law at all times to avoid a situation of anarchy and also preserve the nation’s democracy.
“The rule of law, which is the bastion of democracy across the world, will be strictly observed in our dealings and we must impress it on governments at all levels to actively toe that path. The right of every citizen against any form of oppression and impunity must be jealously guided and protected with the legal tools at our disposal.
“All binding court orders must be obeyed; nobody, irrespective of his or her position, will be allowed to toy with court judgments. We must collectively show the desired commitment to the full enthronement of the rule of law in the land.
“As we all know, flagrant disobedience of court orders or non-compliance with judicial orders is a direct invitation to anarchy in the society”, he stated.
While stressing that such acts are antithetical to the rule of law in a democratic environment, Muhammad said the Supreme Court under his watch would, however, not tolerate it.
Also, President of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Paul Usoro (SAN), decried the poor remuneration of judicial officers, noting that “we betray our vaunted fight against corruption in the judiciary and public sector when we remunerate our judicial and public officers most inadequately as we currently do.”
He appealed to stakeholders to review upward the compensation packages of the judicial officers at all levels as a step towards eliminating corruption in the judiciary.
Usoro similarly tasked the judiciary not to relent on efforts at ridding itself of any corrupt elements amongst them.
He, however, suggested that in doing so, the judiciary must deploy the self-regulating processes within the NJC and in line with constitutional provisions.
He condemned the process that culminated in the retirement of Justice Onnoghen.
According to the NBA president, the process “showed a brazen external intrusion and interference in the disciplinary processes of the judiciary in a manner that undermine its independence and by extension, the rule of law.
“The process was not only contrary to the provisions of our law but also degraded and desecrated the hallowed dignity that is attached to the office of Chief Justice of Nigeria.”
Also speaking, the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF) and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami (SAN), called on justices of the Supreme Court not to bow to the pressures of different political actors, irrespective of any irregularity that might have occurred in the course of dispensing justice by different election tribunals.
“It is important that this court, as a final arbiter, remains just and resolute in resolving all issues presented before it.
He said, in the last legal year the administration of justice received boosts in the areas of Anti-Corruption Policy Drive (which successfully introduced zero tolerance to corrupt practices and entrenched integrity and ethical conducts in the task of governance).
Three Years After, Ngwuta Resumes Supreme Court Sitting
Meanwhile, three years after he was suspended from sitting, Justice Ngwuta, who faced trial for corruption, has resumed his official duties.
Fully dressed in the official robe, Justice Ngwuta was sighted yesterday among other justices of the court at the inauguration of new SANs in the Supreme Court’s ceremonial courtroom.
Justice Ngwuta, now one of the most senior Justices of the Supreme Court, has not sat in open court since November 4, 2016 following a directive by the National Judicial Council (NJC) that judicial officers being investigated on corruption-related allegations should cease to perform their judicial functions until the conclusion of investigation.
He was one of the two justices of the Supreme Court whose houses were raided by operatives of the Department of State Services (DSS) between October 7 and 8, 2016.
He is the third most senior judge on the bench of the apex court behind Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour.
The DSS had claimed that it found hard currencies believed to be proceeds of corruption in his residence.
He was asked to step aside from his duties, though his salary was not stopped, to face charges of money laundering brought against him at the Federal High Court, sitting in Abuja.
He was first arraigned before the Federal High Court in Abuja on corruption-related charges and later arraigned before the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT) over his alleged failure to declare some of his assets.
Both charges were filed by the office of the Attorney General of the Federation (AGF).
On March 23, 2018, the Federal High Court upheld his challenge of the competence of the charge and discharged him.
Justice John Tsoho, in a ruling, relied on the Court of Appeal decision in the appeal by Justice Hyeladzira Nganjiwa (of the Federal High Court) and held that it was wrong to subject Justice Ngwuta to trial before his court without first subjecting him to the disciplinary procedure of the NJC.
On May 15, 2018 the CCT also ruled in a similar manner and struck out the charge against Justice Ngwuta.
Since the last decision by the CCT, Justice Ngwuta has not resumed normal judicial functions. He has not been sighted sitting as a member of any panel of the court either.
However, the CCT overruled itself on this precedence in the case of Justice Onnoghen.
Onnoghen was found guilty and convicted of false asset declaration in April – without discipline or recommendation by the NJC.