Monday Column by Emmanuel Yawe
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I have never liked the judiciary in Nigeria. Those who read my column regularly should know this because I never get tired of writing about the unjust sentences slammed on my father when I was very young.
In 1960, as Nigeria inched towards independence, Benue Province exploded in what has become known as the first Tiv riots in Nigerian history. My old man was a professional teacher and a lay Christian preacher who supplemented his meagre salary with farming, hunting and politics.
His venture into politics brought a lot of grief to his family. He was a member of the United Middle Belt Congress (UMBC) and a hero worshipper of Joseph Tarka who was the National President of the party. As an opposition politician, operating as a local leader in our ancestral home in Donga District of Wukari Federation, he was always at the receiving end of the highhanded local alkali courts.
The most bizarre court process against him was conducted while the presiding judge was having his bath. I witnessed it all. My father had gone to the market square of our village on a market day to deliver a public lecture in support of his party. But he had barely mounted the improvised soap box before the Native Police operatives arrested him. They led him to the home of the local judge, alkali, who was having his bath at the time. It was only then that those of us who followed the drama knew why the old man was arrested. His captors announced proudly and loudly to the judge who was bathing that they had brought the “trouble maker”. He responded immediately that my father should be imprisoned for six months until he finishes his bath.
The casual manner he put my father behind bars was shocking. Was he going to be in the bathroom for six months? He had created an impression that the spontaneous imprisonment of my father was an interim measure until he finished his bath. Mercifully, he did not have to stay that long in jail before freedom came. Malam Aminu Kano an opposition politician and the leader of NEPU that had an alliance with UMBC came around and challenged all politically motivated convictions with the Divisional Officer, a white man who voided the cruel sentences and set my father and others free.
All through the first republic, the military regimes that followed and the second republic, many Nigerians continued to receive these types of unfair sentencing.
When the military came to power in 1984, they set up the Special Military Tribunals. The Nigerian Bar Association challenged the composition of the Tribunals and their mandate. They were headed by serving military men and their mandate was to treat all politicians and political office holders as criminals. The onus was on the people so accused to prove that they were innocent. The NBA did not only disagree with the military government at that time, all members of the Bar were barred from appearing before the Tribunals.
As a reporter covering the Kaduna zone of the Special Military Tribunals 1984-5, I had first-hand experience in the way they functioned. I was there when Abubakar Rimi exploded against his sentencing. He told the Tribunal that with such system of judicial administration, Nigeria had no reason to complain about Apartheid in South Africa. Commodore Elegbede the chairman of the Tribunal shouted on Rimi to shut up. Rimi said he was not going to shut up and continued with his tirade against the government and the Tribunal regardless. The two men almost went physical against each other before the Tribunal broke up abruptly.
Worse still, the judgments of the Tribunals were rather grotesque. Sabo Bakin Zuwo who was already over 50 years was handed a 200 year jail term. In response, he prayed for God to grant Commodore Elegbede, the chairman of the Tribunal the age of Metassula so that he would be alive to make sure he Bakin Zuwo served out his sentence. In any case, he said he did not blame Elegbede much because the Nigerian Judiciary was at that time “under judicial hara – hara- hara” then the final word came out “harakari”. Whatever Bakin Zuwo meant by the term judicial harakari, was not very complementary of the Judiciary under the military government of the time.
After the overthrow of Buhari in 1985, the judiciary had more sad experiences. Obviously, prolonged military rule wiped out the principle of separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and the judiciary branches of government. Court orders were disregarded and decrees were issued, sometimes with retroactive effects, to oust the powers of the courts in handling certain cases.
When I spoke to Justice Muhammadu Uwais, the Chief Justice of the Federation a few months after the inauguration of President Olusegun Obasanjo government in 1999, he told me what happened under the military represented “the dark days of the challenge of the rule of law and flagrant abuses of human rights”. He was hopeful that the situation was going to change even as he remained skeptical about the initial steps of the current republic as they affected the judiciary. For instance he maintained that “the judiciary has not been treated as a third arm of government. If a ministry will spend more than what the entire arm has been given, it tells something.”
The problems of neglect and poor funding mentioned by Justice Uwais in my interview with him in 1999 are still there, twenty years after our current Constitution came into operation.
Still, the system needs the judiciary. Whoever advised this government to send armed troops to invade the houses of serving judges in the middle of the night did this government and the judiciary a great disservice. In the 70’s we used to hear of Idi Amin Dada of Uganda and Jean Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire doing such things to their judges. We used to say then that such things cannot happen in Nigeria. For such a thing to happen in Nigeria in 2000+ was a big shame.
The refusal to grant freedom to some detainees who have been granted bail by the courts is a stain on the human rights records of our government. Again, the Chief Justice of the Federation was docked on corruption charges and made to leave office in circumstances that were not edifying of his exalted office.
Twenty years of uninterrupted democratic rule have not solved some of the elementary problems of judicial administration in our system. Some of the problems are self-inflicted while others have been imposed on the judiciary by enemies of progress. The President is still trying to find a way to implement the financial autonomy and independence of the judiciary that ought to have been there for the asking in all the states of the federation.
The ultimate victim of this shabby treatment of the judiciary is the ordinary Nigerian who will continue to be subjected to cruel judgments, the type my father received in 1960.