The Nigerian judiciary, once a beacon of hope and justice, is now facing a crisis of confidence. Over the years, the lack of faith in the country’s judicial system has grown significantly.
This erosion of trust is a multifaceted issue with deep-seated historical, structural, and systemic roots.
To understand the present situation, we must first acknowledge the historical context. Nigeria’s history is marred by periods of military rule and political instability, which have left scars on the judicial system.
The judiciary has often been used as a tool by the ruling elite to manipulate the law to their advantage. This history of political interference has bred skepticism among Nigerians regarding the judiciary’s independence.
A quote by Sandra Day O’Connor says “the judiciary must not take on the coloration of the political branches of government, nor must it be influenced by them.” Regrettably, this is the perception witnessed by those who should have faith in the Judiciary.
Politics has often exerted influence on the judiciary in Nigeria, and here are some examples:
Appointment of Judges: The process of appointing judges in Nigeria has historically been influenced by political considerations. Judges are often appointed by the executive branch of government, which can lead to appointments based on political loyalty rather than merit.
In 2020, the judicial oversight organization, Access to Justice, expressed concerns that President Muhammadu Buhari may have been engaged in ethnic manipulation when appointing Supreme Court justices.
The organization accused the President at that time of employing a form of coercion, asserting that he had communicated to the Judiciary that unless his preferred candidates were nominated for appointment, he would not consider any other individuals recommended to him by the NJC for Supreme Court positions.
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Case Decisions: Political pressure can sometimes influence the decisions made by judges. In high-profile cases involving political figures or contentious issues, there have been allegations that judges have been pressured to rule in favor of the government or powerful individuals.
Delayed Justice: The judiciary in Nigeria has been accused of causing delays in cases that have political implications. These delays can be used strategically to prolong legal battles, which can be advantageous for political interests seeking to maintain power or stall legal proceedings.
The protracted delay experienced in the legal dispute between certain state governments and the federal government of Nigeria at the Supreme Court has shed light on the reasons why legal cases in Nigerian courts often endure unnecessarily long periods, i.e the case involving the redesign of the naira, originally initiated by three state governments (Kaduna, Kogi, and Zamfara), with subsequent involvement of additional states, witnessed repeated adjournments.
Certain time-sensitive cases end up becoming outdated due to these delays, and it’s not uncommon for cases to span up to two decades, from the lower courts to the Supreme Court, before the core issues are addressed by the higher judiciary.
Frequently, these unwarranted adjournments and courtroom delays result from either the actions of the legal representatives handling the case or the proceedings of the judges presiding over it. In some instances, unforeseen factors, such as acts of nature, also contribute to these delays, which can be detrimental to the timely administration of justice.
For the people, justice delayed can be justice denied.
Partisan Interference: Political parties and politicians have at times attempted to interfere with the judiciary by manipulating the appointment of judicial officers, leading to judges who may be perceived as biased in favor of a particular political faction.
Resource Allocation: The budget allocation for the judiciary is often determined by the political authorities. Inadequate funding can hamper the independence and efficiency of the judiciary, making it susceptible to external influence.
Over the course of many years, the Nigerian Judiciary has endured a state of neglect, primarily due to its reliance on the Executive for financial support, despite constitutional provisions guaranteeing financial autonomy.
This situation has had adverse effects on the dispensation of justice, leading senior lawyers such as Olisa Agbakoba SAN and others to initiate numerous legal actions seeking clarification on the Judiciary’s funding structure. In all these cases, the courts have consistently upheld the principle of financial autonomy for the Judiciary.
Removal of Judges: There have been instances where judges have faced threats of removal from office due to their decisions that were perceived as unfavorable to the political establishment. The contentious suspension of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen by President Muhammadu Buhari in 2019.
Buhari asserted that he took this action in response to an order from the Code of Conduct Tribunal when he removed Mr. Onnoghen.
Post-Election Litigation: After elections, political parties and candidates often resort to the courts to challenge results. The handling of election-related cases can be contentious and can lead to perceptions of political interference in the judiciary.
Corruption and Delays: Corruption within the judiciary remains a major concern. Allegations of bribery, influence peddling, and extortion have plagued the system for decades. While there are undoubtedly many dedicated and honest judges and lawyers in Nigeria, the actions of a few have tainted the reputation of the entire profession.
These examples highlight the complex relationship between politics and the judiciary in Nigeria, where the impartiality and independence of the judicial system are sometimes called into question.
What happens when citizens lose faith in the Judicial system of a nation?
When citizens lose faith in the judicial system of a nation, it can have far-reaching and detrimental consequences for both the legal system and society as a whole.
It could cause erosion of trust in the Rule of Law. The judiciary plays a pivotal role in upholding the rule of law. When citizens lose faith in the judiciary, their trust in the entire legal system diminishes. This can lead to a breakdown in law and order as people may be less inclined to follow the law when they perceive the judicial system as ineffective or biased.
This could also bring decreased respect for court decisions. When individuals believe that court rulings are politically motivated or influenced by corruption, they may view court orders as suggestions rather than binding judgments.
As demonstrated by initiatives like the “All Eyes on the Judiciary” campaign, a loss of confidence in the judicial system may create conditions conducive to vigilantism. When individuals lose faith in the judiciary’s ability to dispense justice, there’s a risk that they may resort to extrajudicial measures or take the law into their own hands. This can result in episodes of violence, social turmoil, and a breakdown of civil order.
Naturally, security systems must remain vigilant and prepared to prevent such situations, ensuring the maintenance of law and order in society.
An independent judiciary is also a crucial component of a democratic system. When people lose confidence in the judiciary’s ability to provide a check on government power and protect their rights, it can undermine the democratic fabric of the nation.
A growing number of Nigerians are reluctant to resort to the legal system, perceiving it as the last resort for justice. This reluctance could dissuade people from pursuing legal remedies for their grievances, resulting in instances where justice is either delayed or denied. Such a scenario can disproportionately impact vulnerable and marginalized groups and may contribute to social divisions.
This could also lead to corruption and misconduct. When there is little oversight and accountability, corruption and misconduct within the judicial system can become more entrenched, exacerbating the loss of public trust.
Suggestions for judicial reform in Nigeria have been put forth previously. Indeed, there is a continued need for further efforts in this regard. Rebuilding trust in Nigeria’s judiciary necessitates comprehensive reform endeavors.
1. Judicial Independence: To restore faith in the judiciary, it is imperative to safeguard its independence from political influence. This can be achieved through legislative measures, transparent appointment processes, and strict adherence to the principle of separation of powers.
2. Anti-Corruption Measures: Robust anti-corruption measures, including the investigation and prosecution of corrupt judges and lawyers, are essential. The judiciary itself should play a proactive role in addressing corruption within its ranks.
3. Case Management and Technology: Streamlining case management processes and embracing technology can significantly reduce delays in court proceedings. Implementing e-filing systems and digital record-keeping can expedite the legal process.
4. Access to Justice: Ensuring that justice is accessible to all Nigerians, regardless of their social or economic status, is crucial. This includes improving legal aid services and simplifying legal procedures for the average citizen.
5. Professional Ethics and Training: Emphasizing professional ethics and ongoing training for judges and lawyers can help maintain high standards of integrity within the legal profession.
6. Public Awareness and Education: Initiatives to educate the public about their legal rights and the workings of the judicial system can empower citizens to demand accountability and transparency.
“In the end, it is the people’s judiciary. They have to have the final word.” – Anthony Kennedy
Rebuilding trust in Nigeria’s judiciary is a complex and long-term endeavor. It requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders, including the government, the legal profession, civil society, and the general public.
While the challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable. With a commitment to reform and a dedication to upholding the principles of justice and the rule of law, Nigeria can restore faith in its judicial system and, in doing so, strengthen its democracy and society as a whole.