By Festus Adedayo
“If you are unlucky not to have a representative in the judicial council, even if you are innocent, you can be found guilty – B’eyan o l’eni ni’gbimo, bo ro’jo are, ebi lo mi a je.” This very profound saying of the Yoruba, translated into a pithy musical line in one of the tracks of Alhaji Ayinla Omowura, late Yoruba Apala musician, point unmistakably to the fact that corruption and favouritism predate colonialism in Africa. When you jointly read this line and D. O. Olagoke’s 1962-written play entitled The Incorruptible Judge, you will understand why it is almost an impossibility for Nigeria to operate an impartial and corrupt-free system.
Nigeria’s latest narration on corruption is the allegation that the 2023 election, especially the presidential election, was corruption-ridden. Three major Nigerian politicians, Atiku Abubakar, Peter Obi and Bola Tinubu jostled for the presidency in the February 25 election. At the end of the exercise, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) winner. Since then, his two opponents have inundated the system with complaints of vote-rigging. The most recent narrative in the back-and-forth allegations was a riveting story which claims that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Kayode Ariwoola, had sneaked out of the country to hold a meeting with Tinubu. He was pictured on wheelchair. The purpose of the meeting, it was alleged, was to get Ariwoola to quash the gossamer of electoral corruption allegations against Tinubu.
Olagoke’s The Incorruptible Judge is a tip of the ice-berg in the cancer that corruption has become since the author penned the book. It is a story of a young school-leaver who, upon submitting his application to fill an advertised vacancy, was asked to pay a bribe of Five pounds. Rather than gratifying the request, he filed a report with the police and his corrupt employer was arrested. As usual in Nigeria, influences were thereafter spun to ensure that the corrupt employer did not go to jail. The applicant’s father-in-law, who was a notable chief, was used to attempt to pervert the course of justice. However, the trial Judge stuck his ground as an incorruptible judge. At the end of the day, the corrupt officer was got convicted, sentenced to a term in the prison.
If you go into historical exposes on corruption in Nigeria like Karl Maier’s This House Has Fallen or Stephen Ellis’ This Present Darkness, it may be difficult not to agree that the problem of corruption in Africa or Nigeria is genetic. In Maier’s is an audacious, brazen and disturbing report of how corruption and favouritism have destroyed the fabric of Nigeria, bellwether of Africa. Told with baffling statistics, you could smell putrid odour emitting from the lines of the book. It is a distressing story narrated with a depressing consistency. Ellis, on the other hand, traced the roots of Nigeria’s fraud-prone system to the immediate colonial era, plotting the graph to the present and why Nigeria is globally perceived as global headquarters of fraud.
With the definition of corruption as “an abuse of entrusted power for personal gains,” you will realize that Nigeria is roiling right inside a puddle of stench. It is glaring that it may even be difficult to acquit any Nigerian of corruption. This is because there is hardly any distinction between the public and private and their purses, as well as public and personal gains.
Since the exit of the colonialists in 1960, the structures of governance they left behind have proved incapable of withstanding the greater pre-colonial structure of corruption that they inherited. Hard as the British tried to battle the cankerworm with institutions of the police and the judiciary, not long after they left, corruption swam ashore with a baffling notoriety. The political class that took power from them was utterly reckless, showing open disdain for accountability and process.
It was the same story with the military who took over power from 1966. Major Kaduna Nzeogwu put the problem of corruption in perspective when he, remarked: “the country’s enemies are the political profiteers, swindlers, the men in high and low places that seek bribes and demand 10 per cent, those that seek to keep the country divided permanently so that they can remain in office as ministers or VIPs at least; the tribalists, nepotists, those that make the country look for nothing before international setting, those that corrupted our society and put the national political calendar back to their words and deeds.”
The Yakubu Gowon military government decorated the Dodan Barracks seat of power with maggots. Though generally perceived as incorrupt due to his austere lifestyle, Gowon was swamped all over by perceptibly corrupt people. His governors owned properties and assets that were far higher than their incomes. Indeed, it was estimated that, on the average, the governors owned commercial properties and farming estates of at least eight houses each, an amount that averaged between N49,000 to N120,000 by 1975 when Murtala Mohammed took over. Same 1975, a corruption scandal surrounding importation of cement called the Cement Armada erupted which engulfed many officials of the Ministry of Defence and the Central Bank of Nigeria. They were accused of falsifying ship manifestos and that many of them inflated figures of cements purchased.
To stave off this public perception, Gowon promulgated the Investigation of Assets Decree No. 37 of 1968, while frenetically engaging in the process of arresting the inexplicable post-war wealth of Nigerian soldiers, mostly accumulated during the three-year civil war. To achieve this, in 1973, Gowon appointed Alhaji Kam Salem to head the “X-Squad,” a fraud investigation arm of the Police, which unearthed many scandals within the Force.
In the July of this same 1974, buffeted on all fronts by the press, Gowon had to harangue his fellow Middle-Belter, Federal Communications Commissioner, Joseph Tarka, to resign from his position, after Godwin Daboh, allegedly in concert with Paul Unongo, accused Tarka of mind-blowing corruption. Tarka’s resignation was child’s play when placed side-by-side his snide comments, which indicated far more humongous corruption in the Gowon government. Tarka had said in a Daily Times newspaper interview, which revealed that he resigned under pressure, that “If I resign, it will set off a chain of reactions of various events, the end of which nobody could foretell.” This was followed by an affidavit sworn to on August 31, 1974 at the Jos High Court by Mr. Aper Aku, who was a known protégé of Tarka. The affidavit contained accusations against the Benue-Plateau Governor, Police Commissioner Joseph Gomwalk, of corruption. Gowon, in a state visit to China, publicly exonerated Gomwalk but public uproar against this police big gun seemed to have just begun afresh. He was eventually later executed by firing squad for his involvement in the 1976 Lt. Col Buka Suka Dimka coup against Murtala Mohammed.
The Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) has been held to be a bastion of corruption under both military and civilian governments and this is so due to the fact that oil and gas exports account for over 90% of Nigerian revenues. Apart from using their positions to filch huge sums of money from this corporation and many others, Nigerian politicians’ corruptive tendencies are most adept in the area of vote rigging and falsification of results by political parties, with corruption waltzing through virtually every facet of the Nigerian government. This is perpetrated and perpetuated through sizeable chunks of fraudulent contracts, petty bribery, money laundering schemes, embezzlement and seizing salaries of a people called ghost workers, a roulette that costs Nigeria billions of dollars yearly. In 2012, it was estimated that Nigeria lost over $400 billion since independence.
In spite of this avalanche of corruption cases that involve the high and mighty and the lowly in Nigeria, if the Nigerian judicial system was above board, Nigeria would not be in the mess it found herself today. The judiciary has not fared better herself. The havoc that judicial corruption has wreaked havoc on its victims is remarkable and mind-boggling. For instance, in cases where litigants return from the court in utter repulsiveness and mental agony simply because the courts collected bribe and ensured a miscarriage of justice, one can imagine the distress such litigants go through. It is such that the chronicity of judicial corruption in Nigeria is taken for granted. Lawyers themselves know corrupt judges and can distinguish them from the sparse incorruptible ones. It is so rampant that finding a judicial officer who is above board is akin to seeking a virgin in a brothel.
Litigants pay bribes to agents of judges and magistrates, or even directly to registrars of courts if they wanted their cases to receive positive judicial attention. In Bori, Khanna local government area of Rivers State some years ago, a chief magistrate was arrested by the criminal investigation department (CID) upon tipoff. He had demanded bribe as condition to sign an accused bail bond. Marked money provided by the CID was then given to him and the magistrate was caught in the act. Land grabbers are also alleged to have specific judges who they give kickbacks and who give them favourable judgments in court. These are just a minuscule of judicial corruption cases that Nigeria is grappling with.
Election petition tribunals are where judicial corruption tied to politicians is most notorious. Under the guise of nocturne, judges collect kickbacks that run into billions of naira and millions of dollars to subvert the will of the people. In 2016, State Security Service (SSS) conducted multiple raids on residences of some senior Nigerian judges in Abuja, Port Harcourt, Gombe, Kano, Enugu and Sokoto. SSS said it did this consequent upon months of investigations where its secret police credibly got evidence that the affected judges were involved in questionable financial dealings. Documents linking some judges to estates that were worth over N1.5 billion were said to have been recovered, while in the residence of another, the sum of $400, 000 and N39 million in cash, in addition to documents of landed properties belonging to a federal judge, were retrieved. Ditto the residence of a federal judge in Port Harcourt who was believed to be in possession of $2 million.
So when allegation that the current CJN, Ariwoola, was in dalliance with the president-elect to pervert justice in the matter against the APC candidate was spun, it seemed to synchronize with the now-becoming-familiar trend of corruption scandals of previous two CJNs. Though he eventually resigned his appointment, Justice Tanko Muhammed was subsumed in corruption allegations of mismanagement of funds leveled against him by 14 justices of the Supreme Court. Before him, CJN Walter Onnghen, who assumed that office in March 2017, got slammed with corruption charges too, specifically asset declaration offences. The Code of Conduct Tribunal claimed that it was only in 2016, after the controversial crackdown on judges, that the CJN declared his assets and it was partially done. He was also accused of failing to declare his assets in series of bank accounts which were denominated in local and foreign currencies at the Standard Chartered Bank branch in Abuja.
Then, Minister of State for Labour, Festus Keyamo, in a release issued yesterday, went off the handle. He claimed in the release that “some persons and groups who are desirous of truncating our democracy” because they were embittered that APC “was declared winner of the 2023 General Elections” and the “misguided individuals” were calling for “either the cancellation of the results or that the President-elect should not be inaugurated on the 29th of May, 2023.” Keyamo said he found it perplexing “that those contesting the results want to be in the courts and on the streets at the same time.” He denounced these people who he referred to as “stoking the embers of hate, division and falsehoods” and like General Sani Abacha once warned NADECO, he bellowed “enough is enough” threatening that “we are not lacking in capabilities and capacities. Our silence should not be taken for cowardice.”
Pray, how can approaching the court and protesting peacefully amount to “truncating democracy”? It is on record that both methods were how Keyamo got his legal notoriety. If some people were convinced that their votes were stolen through one of the crudest electoral heists ever, don’t they have the right to approach the court for its resolution? What is wrong if they back it up with a peaceful protest? Who are the “we” that Keyamo is threatening to unleash – his ministry of labour, the yet-to-be-installed government or the police? Do these approximate the “we” of Keyamo?
If you add all antecedents and precedents of the CJN office, it is very tempting to pronounce Ariwoola as guilty as charged. The allegations are so salacious and riveting that it will be difficult not to agree with those leveling them. However, inconsistencies and inchoate ordering of the allegations are proving very damaging to the substance of the allegations. If you have ever been a victim of mob-lynching and the irreparable damage it has done to the names of personalities in the past who were later found to be innocent of allegations by Nigeria’s Roman mob, one would tarry awhile before queuing behind salacious allegations. This is more so when these pieces of “evidence” were ones that obviously lack substance, except their trolling contents.
In the thick of his despotic rule, I remember an allegation of monumental heist against the administration of military president, Ibrahim Babangida that shook it to its foundation. It was later found out to have been concocted. It was allegedly published in the May 1989 issue of American Ebony magazine. This revved students’ riots that month. Renowned educationist, columnist and critic, Tai Solarin, was the most available scapegoat and veritable object for deconstruction by the allegation. Pronto, Babangida’s security goons alleged that Solarin circulated the allegation. The SSS did two things. First, it got the publisher of Ebony to denounce such publication and to claim that Ebony had not published anything on Nigeria since 1977. Second, the SSS got an asthmatic Solarin to climb a multiple-storey building and immediately upon arrival, set him up for an NTA-covered interrogation. Panting and looking miserable, the interrogator was heard asking, “Dr. Solarin, if I was your student and I did what you just did, will you award me an A, B, C or F?” It spoke to getting concrete evidence before leveling allegations.
I will implore those leveling allegation of judicial corruption against Ariwoola for being in cahoots with those who wanted to judicially to subvert the people’s will to provide irrefutable evidence of this. Mindful that we may be throwing an innocent man under a bus, hefty allegations as this have to go beyond beer parlour gossips. They have to be concrete evidence. To provide, as the only credible evidence linking Ariwoola with bribe, that he, a man who those who know him claim limps, arrived or was about to board an aircraft, and was found to be on wheelchair, is very tepid and cannot stand rigour of scrutiny.
Nigeria must never allow electoral corruption to go into unholy mis-matrimony with judicial corruption. They also must never allow this marriage to influence the final decision of who is their president from May, 2023. It must however never be done by the martyrdom of an innocent man. Since those who gave the wheelchair evidence claim to have details of the meeting, why not provide them? For instance, CCTV evidence of Ariwoola’s arrival at the venue of the meeting; immigration arrival and departure evidence and more substantial tissues of evidence that we can use to crucify him?
(Published by the Sunday Tribune, March 26, 2023)