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Public perception of judiciary now monstrously critical because of bribery, corruption – Justice Dattijo

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Public perception of judiciary now monstrously critical because of bribery, corruption - Justice Dattijo

OBINNA EZUGWU

Justice Muhammad Dattijo, a retiring justice of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, on Friday, berated his colleagues for destroying the image of the judiciary by revelling in bribery and corruption.

Mr Dattijo, who retired on October 27 as he clocks 70, decried the tragic turn of events at the apex court, noting that the current judiciary he is exiting from is far from the one he voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with.

According to him, the judiciary has become a body chocked by bribery and perversion of justice because many of those on the court have no clear understanding of what it meant to deliver justice to the Nigerian people.

“Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical,” Justice Dattijo said at a farewell ceremony held in his honour in Abuja on Friday.

“It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgements.”

Justice Muhammad, who spent 47 years in active judicial service, bowed out of the apex court bench on Friday.

He used the opportunity of a valedictory session that was organised in his honour by the Supreme Court, to address what he observed as rots in the judiciary that have continued to affect the justice delivery system in the country.

“Through the years, I rose to become the second most senior justice of the country’s apex court and Deputy Chairperson of the National Judicial Council. “Considering the number of years I have spent in judicial service and the position I have attained by the grace of the Almighty, I feel obligated to continue the struggle for reforms for a better Judiciary and would be leaning on the earlier submissions of those who had exited before me,” Justice Muhammad stated before he descended on the CJN.

According to him, the judiciary, as presently structured, gave so much powers to the CJN who he said usually takes decisions without consulting other justices.

“As presently structured, the CJN is Chairman of the NJC which oversees both the appointment and discipline of judges, he is equally Chair of the Federal Judicial Service Commission (FJSC), the National Judicial Institute (NJI), the Legal Practitioners Privileges Committee (LPPC) that appoints Senior Advocate of Nigeria,” he said.

“In my considered opinion, the oversight functions of these bodies should not rest on an individual alone. A person with absolute powers, it is said, corrupts easily and absolutely. As Chair of NJC, FJSC, NJI and LPPC, appointments as council, board and commitment members are at his pleasure. He neither confers with fellow justices nor seeks their counsel or input on any matter related to these bodies. He has both the final and the only say. The CJN has power to appoint 80 percent of members of the council and 60 percent of members of FJSC. The same applies to NJI and LPPC.

“Such enormous powers are effortlessly abused. This needs to change. Continued denial of the existence of this threatening anomaly weakens effective judicial oversight in the country. ”

On the current composition of the bench of the apex court, Justice Muhammad alleged that the refusal to fill the vacant slot of South East on the apex court bench, was deliberate, blaming it on “absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN.”

He further stressed that with his retirement, the North Central zone which he represented, would no longer have a Justice on the Supreme Court bench.

“My lord Hon. Justice Ejembi Eko JSC who also represented the zone retired on 23rd of May, 2022. It has been a year and five months now. There has not been any replacement. With the passing of my lord, Hon. Justice Chima Centus Nweze, JSC on 29th July 2023, the South East no longer has any presence at the Supreme Court. My lord, Hon. Justice Sylvester Nwali Ngwuta JSV died on 7th March 2021. There has not been any appointment in his stead for the South East. As it stands, only four geo-political regions- the South-West, South-South, North-West and North-East are represented in the Supreme Court. While the South-South and North-East have two serving justices, the North-West and South-West are fully represented with three each.

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“Appropriate steps could have been taken since to fill outstanding vacancies in the apex court. Why have these steps not been timeously taken? It is evident that the decision not to fill the vacancies in the court is deliberate. It is all about the absolute powers vested in the office of the CJN and the responsible exercise of same,” the retiring jurist added.

On the issue of membership of the panel that heard the presidential election appeals by candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and the Labour Party, LP, Mr Peter Obi, Justice Muhammad, said: “To ensure justice and transparency in presidential appeals from the lower court, all geo-political zones are required to participate in the hearing.

“It is therefore dangerous for democracy and equity for two entire regions to be left out in the decisions that will affect the generality of Nigerians. “This is not what our laws envisage. Although it can be posited that no one expected the sudden passing of Hon.

“Justice Nweze JSC, yet, it has been two years and seven months since the previous justice from South-East died and no appointment was made.”

Speaking on funding and independence of the Judiciary, the retiring justice bemoaned that though the budgetary allocation for the Judiciary increased from 70billion that it was in 2015 to 165billion presently, “Justices and officers welfare and the quality of service the judiciary renders have continued to decline.

“It may interest one to know that the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court earns more than the Justices. While she earns N1.2m per month, justices take home N751,000 in a month. “The CJN on his part takes home N400, 000 plus. The salary of a Justice, curiously, drops rather than increases when he gets the added responsibility of being a CJN. “The unjust and embarrassing salary difference between the justices and the Chief Registrar remains intriguing, to say the least.”

He noted that it was owing to allegations of corruption and perversion of justice, that informed President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to order the invasion of homes and arrest of some judges in 2016.

“Not done, in 2019 the government accosted, arrested and arraigned the incumbent Chief Justice before the Code of Conduct Tribunal for alleged underhand conduct. “With his retirement negotiated, he was eventually left off the hook. “In 2022, a letter signed by all other justices of the Supreme Court, including the current Chief Justice, the aggrieved protested against the shabby treatment meted to them by the head of the court and the Chief Registrar.

“In the event, his lordship Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad disengaged ostensibly on grounds of ill-health.

“My lords, distinguished invitees, ladies and gentlemen, it is obvious that the judiciary I am exiting from is far from the one I voluntarily joined and desired to serve and be identified with. The institution has become something else,” Justice Muhammad lamented.

Mr Dattijo indicated he was not the only justice with an unflattering review of the judiciary while on the way out, citing a similar observation made by a former justice of the Court of Appeal, Oludotun Adefope-Okojie, who retired in May 2023 at 70.

Mr Dattijo said Mrs Adefope-Okojie, while retiring, lamented that justices at the top levels of the Nigerian judiciary have failed to amend their corrupt way even as the public anger intensified.

“Pleas are expressed every day by the generality of the public begging the judiciary to be just, to be truthful, and to save the country from collapse,” the justice said.

While further citing Mrs Adefope-Okojie more extensively, Mr Dattijo recalled other parts of his retired colleague’s observation of the court’s descent from grace.

“My question is whether the judiciary needs to be begged or cajoled? What is it that qualifies any person to bear that exalted name ‘Honourable Justice’? Is it not for him to administer justice without fear or favour?

“Unfortunately, it has been severely vilified with the Apex Court so denigrated and called by a social commentator as a voter gaggle of useless, purchasable judicial bandits.

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“How did the judiciary get to this level? Why is the whole country on edge for fear of what the public regards as unpredictable judicial pronouncements? There must be a rethink and a hard reset.

“If the people we have sworn to defend have lost confidence, there is a problem that must be addressed,” Mr Dattijo noted in his emphasis on Mrs Adefope-Okojie’s remarks.

Meanwhile, earlier in the ceremony, the CJN, in his speech, paid glowing tribute to the retiring jurist who he described as a “quintessential Judicial icon with dazzling qualities and alluring stature.”

“His Lordship is one judicial officer that could be blunt, even to a fault; and is never known to be afraid to say things the way they are; and also never shies away from calling a spade by its name, irrespective of whose ox is gored,” the CJN stated. He decried that with Justice Muhammad’s exit, the apex court bench has further depleted to 10.

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