By Sylvester Asoya
Many years ago, one of my editors told me some exciting stories about the judiciary and court reporting. He also told me a hundred times over, why it is worthwhile for a journalist to experience court reporting. Unlike other beats, judicial correspondents and other journalists assigned to the courts are guided by rules and procedures. So, after my encounter with that newspaper editor, my respect for the court, judges and other officials in the temple of justice soared. But I did not have any spectacular court experience as a reporter until 1999 when the former president, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo established the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, HRVIC, headed by the late Justice Chukwudifu Oputa.
Oputa Panel, as it was fondly called, was mandated to investigate human rights abuses and related crimes during the horrific years of military rule. The commission also explored reconciliation opportunities between individuals and groups.
So, when my employer, The NEWS Magazine, gave me the opportunity to cover the commission, it was like a dream come true. I am happy to announce that Oputa, the quintessential adjudicator, did not disappoint. The renowned judge who is popularly regarded as Socrates of the Nigerian Bench made a good impression on me with his carriage and bravery. The former Supreme Court justice was clearly in charge of affairs through the proceedings, regardless of his age and workplace challenge. In fact, we were in awe of him: reporters, lawyers, observers and even yesterday’s men of power standing trial. We respected and admired his courage, eloquence, scholarship, discipline, camaraderie and amazing sense of humour.
Without doubt, Oputa was a very skilled and creative judge. After observing him at close quarters for a period of time during the commission’s work in Lagos, it became evident to many of us that creativity was a daily routine for him. He thrilled us in-between sitting sessions with his vast knowledge and understanding of law and classics. He also delighted us with many tales like the story of a taxi driver and a lawyer, one busy morning, in a London street. According to him, the lawyer had flagged down the cab apparently to take him to the court for the day’s business. “Take me to the court of justice”, the lawyer yelled at the taxi driver. “No, it is the court of law, not justice”, the driver retorted, irritated by the lawyer’s use of words and posture. Who would have thought that the unlearned driver would spring such a surprise? But this unusual London driver spoke from a position of strength; after all, there could be a miscarriage or failure of a court to achieve justice for the innocent. Oputa also told us other enthralling tales about courageous lawyers and judges who inspired hope in their days like Lord Denning, the populist English judge who fought for the rights of the underprivileged.
I will also not forget how Oputa skillfully moderated one of the turbulent sessions of the commission when Kunle Ajibade, a renowned journalist and author came face to face with Major General Patrick Aziza, the man who jailed him for life. Aziza, a former Commander of the Lagos Garrison, headed the military tribunal that imprisoned Ajibade, a brilliant mind and one of the founders of The NEWS Magazine after a kangaroo judicial process. But on 4 January, 2001, Ajibade had the last laugh when he and Aziza took turns to address the commission. It was a most embarrassing moment, not just for the general who gave a poor account of himself but also for other army officers for their dishonourable roles under the despotic five-year rule of Sani Abacha.
In spite of the tension and uncertainties in and around the
Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission for obvious reasons, men of the Department of State Security, DSS or other security operatives did not invade the premises or harass members of the commission. Even soldiers and other security agents who were at the receiving end because of their ignoble roles during that era, stayed quiet in their barracks. There was no issue or question of respect for the dignity of the commission or other courts and their judges; reverence for those in the temple of justice, was taken for granted because that is the law.
In a way, respect for the rule of law was also part of my early childhood education lesson. Teachers who taught us government in secondary school repeatedly lectured us on the judiciary and its importance in a democracy. And as a teen that was incredibly impressionable, the part about the judiciary being the common man’s last hope really excited me. So, as students, all of us accepted this truth because nothing could be more certain, given the fact that in a democracy, the three arms of government are co-equal branches. This belief was further strengthened when I eventually met and interacted with Oputa and other prominent lawyers like the late Chief Gani Fawehinmi, Professor Akin Oyebode, Femi Falana, Mike Ozekhome and Bamidele Aturu, among others.
Today, however, many people believe that the Nigerian judiciary is the one that actually needs hope, not the common man who has already accepted his fate. Lately, judgments from the Supreme Court are now subject of unremitting evaluation and open criticism by people, including lawyers, who feel dissatisfied with a few of the court’s disparate rulings. This trend which is now commonplace, was taken too far recently by some hoodlums when judges and their interests became targets of an angry mob after a judgment.
At no time in our history have our institutions and important public officers felt so diminished, tarnished and low, but the reasons are not far to seek. In the last few years, the judiciary has gone through incalculable trials and tribulations, but the aim is to weaken this important arm of government and make it impossible for it to invoke and utilize its power to check and balance government and society.
Today in Nigeria, corruption is simply a way of life and nobody makes any pretentions about it any longer. Unfortunately, the judiciary, an arm of government empowered to interpret the constitution and bring order, gave itself away by the activities of a few of its willful members. Recent controversial judgments have also further damaged the image and reputation of judicial officers in Nigeria. But the question is: why is government silent on official malfeasance in the executive and the legislative arms? Why no early morning raids on the houses of those believed to be corrupt in the executive and the legislative arms in Abuja?
Without a vibrant and independent judiciary, there cannot be democracy. And this must worry everyone, including those hell-bent on emasculating the courts and abridging our basic civil liberties as citizens. If state failure manifests when those in power cannot provide security, guarantee freedom for the judiciary, engender growth through a productive economic climate and support a stable political process, then our prayer point as a people must change. Now, we must focus on how to get Nigeria on its feet again.
It is gratifying to note that those who worked for the electoral fortunes of the ruling party yesterday, are today rating government business poorly and singing a new song. This is so because there are now clear signs of ineptitude everywhere. Therefore, it is only a matter of time for those who still have some kind words for a group of people who promised Nigerians change five years ago, to capitulate; and that is when the real change will begin.