THE recent visit of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, to Rivers State for the commissioning of a Judicial Institute constructed by the state governor, Nyesom Wike and the inauguration of the South-South Liaison Office of the Federal Judicial Service Commission, has become a talking point in the country, though for all the wrong reasons. At that function, where the judicial institute built and named after a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Mary Odili, was commissioned by Justice Ariwoola, the CJN was credited to have made statements, which some individuals have criticised as partisan and unbecoming of a judicial officer of his standing. However, a rebuttal has since been made, establishing that Justice Ariwoola only made a joke about his state governor, Mr. Seyi Makinde, being a close ally and in-law of the Rivers State governor and that he did not dabble in politics.
Revered learned silk, Barr. Ahmed Raji, SAN, who also attended the event, had, in a statement, clarified that the CJN did not in any way cross the line into partisanship, saying: “I was at the said occasion at Port Harcourt and there was never a time the Chief Justice of the Federation said anything about being in support of the group of PDP five governors. “For anybody to think the Chief Justice of the Federation will come down to such a level as discussing party issues is ridiculous.” Though this rebuttal is instructive and should have ended the narrative being built by overnight advocates of judicial decency, to drag the Chief Justice into unnecessary controversy, the individuals continued to engage in protests and media attacks against the Supreme Court chief, which to me, is unfair and unwarranted. Interestingly, however, I have had to ask myself why some individuals and purported civil society groups would start the blitzkrieg against Justice Ariwoola over what was allegedly said in Port-Harcourt, especially when it became clear that the Chief Justice said a lot of things that were, indeed, ignored. For instance, he charged state governors to do more for their people by way of building infrastructure and delivering legacy projects. So, why and how did the Chief Justice become the ‘enemy’ that must be advocated against by ‘civil society groups’ and that too over an allegation of making comments about the crisis in the PDP, at a time that the nation is facing graver issues that need all the attention of advocacy groups it can get?
Indeed, anyone who has followed or does a cursory search of his words since he was sworn-in as the substantive CJN would immediately realise that the political class would try to fight him back for his hard posture against their interference with the judiciary over the years. As it is often, corruption always fights back. Since his swearing-in in October 2022, the CJN has never missed an opportunity to warn judges on the sensitivity of their positions and the imperative of impartiality. A recent case in point was at the special court session, an annual event to mark the 2022/2023 legal year of the Supreme Court and the inauguration of 62 lawyers as Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs), held on Monday, 28 November, 2022.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria had said to the judges, “you must not allow yourselves to be used, else the sledge hammer of justice will descend heavily on you.” In a similar development, Justice Ariwoola had, in October, warned judges in the country not to betray public trust, while he also pointedly told politicians to not interfere with the operations of the judiciary. “Let the politicians leave the judiciary alone for us to function,” the CJN had said. Though most Nigerians know that politicians would not heed that warning, not a lot of people realised that it must have touched the wrong nerves and that those to whom the warning was fired would become invigorated to interfere with the judiciary by assailing the Chief Justice himself. Of course, how best do you assail a Justice of the Supreme Court, let alone the Chief Justice of Nigeria, if not by dragging him into the public space and painting him with the coal-tar of partisanship, with less than three months to a general election?
The individuals and groups cloaked as advocates of judicial decency, who are staging these protests and pointing accusing fingers at the CJN as well as their partners in the media, who are having a field day editorialising on a topic that should have no business getting into the media space since it was based on falsehood ab initio, are probably enjoying the fact that the CJN would never be able to defend himself. But it is indecent and unfair that some people would assault the Chief Justice of Nigeria only armed with an unfounded allegation of partisanship, forgetting the words of an American poet, that a judicial system is corrupt if truth is denied the right to be a witness? From the little that is known about the new CJN, he is considered as one of the apex court’s finest justices and has discharged his duties as a Justice of the Supreme Court since 2011 without any trace of infidelity.
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He has also, upon assuming office as CJN, pushed the frontiers of judicial probity through his words and actions. So, the question Nigerians should ask is, in whose interest are those accusing Ariwoola doing so and whether they know more than they are telling us? Yes, one accepts that it is the unassailable right of every Nigerian to air opinions and/or protest as the case may be and that in agreement with the words of Senator Patrick Leahy, America’s long-time serving senator, that public scrutiny is desirable for healthy functioning of the judiciary itself, the CJN should not be immune from public scrutiny. It is important to recognise and respect the limits, so that the judiciary is not dragged into unnecessary murky waters and discredited by politicians disguised as friends of the public. Unmistakably, the ongoing assault against the CJN is deeper than it looks, it is, indeed, another orchestrated attempt to fight and weaken the judiciary ahead of the coming elections and those behind the attack would have realised that once they disarm the head of the judiciary, it would be easy to blackmail other judges along the way. So, Nigerians must see through this facade soon enough, as it has become clear that the action is not in the interest of the nation or the common men.
It is also important for those attacking Justice Ariwoola to back down at this point, at least until they have a better premise than just some unfounded words from those Barr. Raji (SAN) rightly tagged as mischief-makers.
- Idris, a public affairs analyst, writes from Kano