The 2017 All-Nigeria Judges’ Conference may have come and gone but not without disagreements between the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen, and President Muhammadu Buhari on the role of the judiciary, and the need for the executive to respect the rule of law and the doctrine of separation of powers.
In his address, Justice Onnoghen showed he was not the kind of man who would equivocate or cower in the presence of the President. He delivered his address in a forthright, dispassionate, and impartial way. He said one of the despicable ways government at federal and state levels undermined the judiciary was through blatant refusal to obey court orders.
For many years, executive recklessness and disregard for the judiciary have disrupted the judicial process and challenged the ability of judges and magistrates to serve as role models and as emblems of justice, fairness, and the last refuge of the ordinary person.
As Buhari looked on in awe, Justice Onnoghen took the battle straight to the executive court, saying government disregard for court orders should be taken seriously by other arms of the executive. This, he said, would signal “a strong motivation for the fight against corruption and the entrenchment of the rule of law in our country.”
The Chief Justice drew on two international examples to demonstrate how the rule of law is reflected, respected and practised in other democracies. He said Nigeria ought to learn from Kenya and the United States, where the rule of law existed in practice because the Presidents of both countries respected court decisions that went against the interests of the government.
Onnoghen said emphatically: “Today, Nigerians easily refer to the recent Supreme Court judgment in Kenya and some court orders in the United States of America and conclude that the judiciaries in those countries are doing better than ours. They, however, forget to mention that President Uhuru Kenyatta promptly accepted the judgment annulling his victory in the August 8, 2017, presidential election and agreed to a re-run against his opponent.”
The Chief Justice was absolutely correct. The Supreme Court judgment in Kenya was a landmark decision that was widely hailed and applauded across the world. It had never happened before in Kenya or indeed in any other African country.
Generally, judges in many countries ruled by civilian or military dictators lack the courage, independence and moral uprightness to make adverse judgments against the government of their countries. That is why the Supreme Court decision in Kenya is seen as bold and pioneering.
Now, compare the situation in Kenya with flagrant and frequent disregard by state and federal governments in Nigeria of judgments made by appeal courts, high courts, and magistrate’s courts. At state and federal levels, court decisions are treated with contempt and mocked. State governors and federal officials see themselves as untouchables, people who are above the law. They don’t believe our laws apply to them. They believe misleadingly that laws are made to be observed by common people.
I was happy that Buhari attended the All-Nigeria Judges’ Conference to listen to Chief Justice Onnoghen’s impassioned, bold, and touching speech. Sometimes, you need a man of such calibre and character to call things the way he sees them in a fair-minded, accurate, and blunt manner. Chief Justice Onnoghen deserves to be commended for showing courage, autonomy, and impartiality in the presence of the President and other members of the executive arm of government.
Having listened to the Chief Justice, Buhari should reflect on how many times his government has respected or disregarded numerous court judgments. If he has forgotten, let us remind him of some glaring cases, such as disrespect of court judgments that granted bail to Sambo Dasuki, the former National Security Adviser, who has been in incarceration for nearly two years, as well as a court judgment ordering instant freedom from detention for the leader of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and his wife. There are numerous others.
To be sure, Chief Justice Onnoghen did not present the judiciary as an immaculate institution. He acknowledged the judiciary was not without some corrupt elements but added that the National Judicial Council has set up mechanisms for exposing corrupt judges. In this context, he told his audience that “a corrupt judge is not only a disgrace to the Bench and the noble profession, but also a disaster to the course of justice and the nation.”
He said further: “I must not fail to emphasise here that my definition of corruption is not limited to bribe-taking, but includes the giving of judgments or orders based on any consideration other than legal merit. I am confident that, in due course, our efforts to rid the judiciary of questionable persons shall yield results.”
Of course, Buhari did not just sit and listen like a lame duck President. In his opening address, he expressed his feelings about the lacklustre performance of many judges, which had led to a backlog of cases awaiting high court decisions. He said the least the citizens expected from the judiciary were equity, swiftness, and even-handedness in the administration of justice.
His words: “The knock-on effects of these delays and discontinuities range from loss of confidence in the judicial system to over-crowding of prisons. This is an area Your Lordships should pay close attention to in your efforts at reforming the system.”
Buhari admitted to knowledge of some actions of his government that were clearly highhanded. He said: “My lords, earlier this year the Judiciary came under investigation. Let me again assure the judicial community this action taken by the executive was in no way a prelude to usurping the powers of the National Judicial Council or aimed at intimidating the judiciary… executive and legislative officials were also investigated. I am aware that the majority of judicial officers are learned and incorruptible and day in, day out, acting in the best spirit of their oath of office.”
While Buhari sounded paternalistic, understanding, and willing to help to alleviate the problems that confront judges, unfortunately, he carries a baggage of unfulfilled promises that date back from the 2015 presidential election campaigns. He is widely seen as an authoritarian who has demonstrated his contempt for high court judges and Supreme Court justices. Some people see him as an ageing head teacher determined to teach judges how they should do their job. Whatever anyone might think, Buhari does not have the right to meddle in the judicial process or to lecture judges and Supreme Court justices on the issues they should prioritise in weighing cases presented before their courts.
The All-Nigeria Judges’ Conference held last month has exposed the contradictions in Buhari’s so-called adherence to rule of law and the principle of separation of powers. The Federal Government’s disregard for judgments made by courts is not only imprudent, it also constitutes unnecessary interference in the judicial process. Those who live in glass houses must learn to not hurl pebbles in any direction. The stones might return to hit the senders.