Ahuraka Isa examines? the 100 days in office of Justice Dahiru Musdapher as Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN).
The appointment of Justice Dahiru Musdapher as the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria? (CJN) by President Goodluck Jonathan last August initially left many disappointed. Since the clarion call was for one who would clean up the Augean Stable that the judiciary had become, there were doubts whether this 69 year old Jigawa native could play Hercules. The urgent need was to restore confidence in the judicial system, a system so full of rot that the infamous Katsina-Alu/Salami scandal was merely the most visible symptom of a systemic malaise.
Indeed, public perception of the revered Third Estate of the Realm was so bad that judges and policemen seemed for a while to weigh the same in the public’s scale of opprobrium. As the? president of the Nigeria Bar Association, Mr. Joseph Daudu noted, ‘’There is a growing perception backed up by empirical evidence that justice is purchased and it has been purchased on several occasions in Nigeria.’’
Thus, justice Musdapher’s appointment, though consistent with the tradition of appointing the ranking justice of the Supreme Court, failed to assuage critics who yearned for a more ‘radical’ candidate. It didn’t help that? Jonathan was then facing criticism on the manner he had handled the row between the suspended President of the Court of Appeal and the country’s former chief justice. Mashood Erubami who chaired a Transition Monitoring Group said the president’s approval of the suspension of Salami, ‘’is in the first instance very ridiculous, a clear coup d’état against the rule of law, coming at a time that the integrity rating of the judiciary is below credible.’’
Rufai Ahmed Alkali,? National Publicity Secretary of the Peoples Democratic Pary believes it is the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) that incite Nigerians against the judiciary stressing that the opposition cries more than the bereaved. But his ACN counterpart insisted ‘’We are not crying more than the bereaved . We are actually the bereaved…We are bereaved when the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria is literally torn to shreds, as President Goodluck Jonathan did in acting on the illegal recommendation of the National Judicial Counil (NJC).’’
Such was the judiciary? at the time of Justice Musdapher’s appointment, a body that had become so politicized that ranking judges were profiled according to whether or not they belonged to the PDP or the ACN.Among discerning minds, there was no doubt about the kind of person that would be? suitable for the highest office in the judiciary, and head of the NJC. Indeed, the Nigerian Bar Association, after a meeting in PortHarcourt,? provided the categories of people who can not be CJN.? ‘‘anyone who has either directly or indirectly participated in the ongoing embarrassing murk at the apex judicial body should not be CJN.
But Musdapher, born 1942, has been a justice of the Supreme Court since 2003. He was also serially mentioned in the matter of ‘Salami versus Katsina Alu.’ Besides, he will be retiring this year when he clocks the mandatory retirement age of 70;? and with less than one year remaining, it was hardly possible that he would be willing, or able, to undertake any thorough cleansing measures. Like one analyst puts it, Justice Musdapher was typecast as an establishment man who would be loath to rock the boat. His choice elicited an almost universal sigh, -of disappointment.
But three months down the line, the chief justice has not only rocked the boat, he seems ready to overturn it. Quietly and with the dignity that is the hallmark of his office, he has been engineering a revolution in this most conservative arm of government. His mantra is: ‘judicial reform’. At a stakeholder’s meeting for the reform of the Nigerian judiciary held in October, he said ‘’Every aspect of our responsibilities must be scrutinized, improved and realigned towards reform.’’
Perhaps aware of how little time he has, the respected jurist has been bringing in innovations at what is considered a dizzying pace in this very conservative sector.
In one of his earliest speeches, Justice Musdapher noted that most of the angst of the society against the judiciary was justified. ‘’We must admit that the quality and timeliness of the trial process, procedural inefficiencies… declining intellectual quality and reasoning content of delivered judgments, corruption, as well as the effects of unrestrained quest for political power have all served to disrupt the efficiency of the judiciary and damaged its perception.’’
At the 5th Annual General Conference of the Section on Legal Practice of the NBA, in November, the Chief Justice proposed a series of radical measures to revamp the judiciary. First, he queried the whole idea of a holding charge which he said contributes largely to prison congestion. ‘’The state cannot incarcerate its citizen while scrambling for evidence to build a case against him.’’? He also came down hard on the illegal system of parading suspects on television, and the spurious injunctions given by judges against law enforcement agents -unwittingly preventing them from arresting criminals.
And perhaps none of his pronouncements caused as much ripples as his condemnation of Plea Bargain. Said he, ‘’This is a novel concept of dubious origin. It has no place in our law. It was invented to provide soft landing to high profile criminals who loot the treasury entrusted to them. It is an obstacle to our fight against corruption.’’
‘’Where had Musdapher been all these years,’’ asked more than one newspaper editorial, in evident awe.
No doubt corruption is the single most important factor responsible for the debilitating poverty in the land. Yet though many of his predecessors have condemned the scourge, they took no concrete step to nip it in the bud. Former head of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), Farida Waziri had complained about lack of cooperation from judges who allegedly use injunctions and other delay tactics to frustrate prosecutors.
‘The slow judicial processes our courts are known for and the bureaucratic and legalistic bottlenecks…do not allow us to achieve our statutory goals easily’ she said.
At a lecture organized by the Nigerian Institute of Advanced Legal Studies last month, Justice Musdapher as has become his wont, stunned the audience when he issued a virtual practice direction to judges handling corruption cases to ensure that they conclude trial within six months or dismiss such cases if the prosecution is not willing to pursue the matter diligently. Without doubt this is one of the most profound measures taken to fight corruption. A jubilant EFCC said in a statement that if strictly adhered to, it will bring closure to over 75 high profile cases and about 1,500 others it was filing. In short, it has the potential of totally reshaping the nation’s anti graft war.
Every time one thinks that the chief justice has reached his high watermark, he surprises again, leaving Nigerians reeling from the shock of his pronouncements. In a landmark decision last month, the Chief Justice leading four other justices of the Supreme Court, ordered the governorship election tribunals sitting in Benue and Akwa Ibom states to hear afresh the petitions challenging the elections of both Governor Gabriel Suswan and Godswill Akpabio. Both are governors from the ruling party and many marveled at Musdapher’s fearlessness.
Earlier, the courts of Appeal sitting in Makurdi and Uyo had dismissed the petitions against the governors on the ground that pre-hearing notices were filed ex-parte without leave of the tribunal. But a livid Justice Musdapher asked, ‘’What is the difference between a letter or ex-parte motion? Everybody is watching us. I am begging you, in the name of Justice, matters should be decided on their merits not on technicalities.’’
Public reaction was profound, especially since many people have found the reason for the Appeal court’s judgment quite dubious. Former president of the West African Bar Association, Femi Falana noted that, ‘’The Apex court’s decision will have a ripple effect throughout the country, because most of the Appeals filed by sitting governors were on technical grounds.’’
For some 100 days now, Justice Musdapher has been emphasizing the need for judicial reform and no doubt the message has taken root. It is no longer business as usual as even the most cynical watcher of our judiciary must by now be aware. The Chief Justice met a very dirty stable and so far he has done such a good job of cleaning it as to make Hercules proud.