As members of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) gather at their 55th annual general conference, they should for once undertake deep soul searching on their pivotal role in national development.
This is essentially because the preponderance of all nefarious activities in the country is borne out of the colossal failure of the judicial system to hold offenders accountable for their deeds at every level.
The single fact that anybody does whatever and goes scot-free is the singular reason corruption thrives, security is weak, drivers are careless, medical practitioners are negligent, governance is weak, the educational system is poor, infrastructure are decayed and all one can think of.
Whatever disagreement one may have with current President Muhammadu Buhari, one cannot agree more with his message to this year’s annual gathering when he pointed out to legal practitioners in the country that the prevalent culture of “impunity has damaged our economy.”
Without doubt, the rot in the judiciary goes far beyond affecting just the economy; the entire fabric of the society is relishing in the new normal culture of impunity, so much so that at any point in time, anywhere it may be, anything goes, all to the detriment of national development.
Buhari said it all when he indicated in his speech that, “for millions still wallowing in want and diseases, corruption is a major reason why they cannot go to school, why they cannot be gainfully employed, and why there are few doctors, nurses and drugs in hospitals and health centres.”
It is indeed very true, according to Buhari, that corruption is “the reason why pensioners are not paid and why potable water is scarce. Yes, corruption diverts public resources meant for millions of people into the private pockets of a greedy few, thus causing a lot of suffering and deprivation.
For lovers of this country, it is most regrettable to admit that all these happen because the perpetrators go unchallenged, unpunished, because the citadel of justice is in itself corrupt.
Widespread disrespect of the law is consequently the order of the day in Nigerian, thus creating a heaven of impunity entrenched by the anything goes mentality.
The picture is very easy to paint; it is the true that people are jobless because to a large extent the resources that would have created job opportunities have been misappropriated. People get sick and die just like that because the hospitals have been wiped out of medication by unscrupulous staffers, lecturers collect bribe to pass students, lawmakers misappropriate constituents’ funds, etc. Communities have remained undeveloped because corrupt officials have stolen the funds allocated to provide basic amenities, and in all these, nothing happens, the criminal officials easily get away with it.
It becomes even more painful to know that legal practitioners help frustrate the course of justice by sacrificing the integrity of the legal system.
In Nigerian, the credibility of the legal system does not seem to really matter, at least to the practitioners, and justice has since become either for the highest bidder or for the government in power.
The legal robe has since been tainted and now personifies corruption as the path of rectitude is thrown to the winds. But we cannot continue this way, something has to be done. Doing nothing has never been a good option. But the question is, what could be done as moral suasion does not seem to be working?
Now, to get this right, it is imperative to state that there may not be a perfect system anywhere, especially with the judiciary, but our case is made worse by the alarming degree of impunity in the system.
In the United States for instance, there are still cray areas in the dispensation of the judicial system, a reason for instance social justice is still an issue, voting rights are threatened in some States, but to a large extent there is a very high respect for law and order.
Most people here in the US make every effort, on a daily basis, to do the right thing in their homes, on the road, at work and that is why the system is working; and our Nigerian officials and their families flock in here to enjoy a system that works.
We need to do something and somehow it is now or never. This is why the reported plan by the Buhari administration to set up special courts for looters should be supported by all and sundry. It should be a bipartisan idea because the world has lost confidence in Nigerian regular courts due to the magnitude in which people get away with all sorts of shady deals.
This was displayed during President Buhari’s meeting with the United States Attorney General, Loretta Lynch in June. It was widely reported that going by the impunity by which government officials in Nigeria steal money, the US Justice Department was “reluctant to sustain their collaboration with Nigerian authorities unless the Buhari administration set some process in place to identify and fire corrupt judges from the Nigerian judiciary.”
At a time Nigerians are making strides in every field of human endeavour in all corners of the globe, this should be a shame to our legal practitioners, but good enough the current President feels it. We must also not forget in a hurry that until the British justice department stepped in, Ibori was a godfather and political juggernaut in Nigeria.
For any war on corruption to succeed, the starting point is of course the judiciary, and Buhari knows that; a reason why it was also reported that “after leaving the meeting with the US Attorney General, the Nigerian President vowed that he would take decisive steps to rid Nigeria of corrupt judges to ensure the success of his anti-corruption agenda.” That must have given birth to the reported moves to establish special courts to try corrupt-related cases because of the Presidents lack of confidence in the regular courts.
In this direction, the Presidency is said to have commenced the process of identifying fearless judges that would be saddled with the onerous responsibility of prosecuting corrupt persons. The president may need more than luck to succeed in pinpointing this caliber of judges.
Although opponents of special courts have their arguments against the move, but it must be acknowledged that drastic situations need drastic moves as we cannot continue with the shame of the tainted legal robes as a nation. Come to think of it, for 55 years now, members of the bar and bench have been meeting every year. The quick question here is, have they been ever perturbed by the generally perceived lack of credibility of their profession?
There sure must be few good eggs in there and they should arise and lead in the task of exposing various misdeeds of their incredulous members as a way to arrest their fallen professional image and restore something akin to credibility. The should be name-and-shame corrupt members of the bar and bench for the sake of this great country.
The unscrupulous members should not bring the profession and indeed the country so low in the eyes of right thinking members of the global community.
Williams Ekanem is a Nigerian Journalist based in New York.