Justice Tanko’s date with history

As the judicial grapevines are abuzz with the speculations that the current Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, may resume the judicial reforms begun some ten years ago by a predecessor of his, the late Justice Dahiru Musdapher, it is necessary to do a recap at least of some of the fundamental aspects of the reforms with a view to encouraging that initiative especially now by a chief justice who has both the advantage of ‘time’ and of ‘space’ to conduct an even more holistic revamp of our ailing Nigerian Judicial system.

All ‘power’ and no ‘fiat’

A chief justice, unlike an executive president or maybe even a collegiate head of the legislative arm (made up of the Senate President and Speaker of the House), does not have the luxury of judicial fiat to command the righting of wrongs in the judicial arm that he superintends, or by extra-judicial authority to command the various heads of court to administer their own judicial outposts according to his whims and caprices.

Outside of his authority as a judicial administrator and outside his quasi-legislative powers as a sitting judge, the administrative luxuries that the chief justice of Nigeria may enjoy, do not extend beyond the authority, say of providing procedural guidance to all heads of court through the occasional issuance of ‘practice directions’ and as head of the apex court himself, by way of assigning cases to fellow judges with whom he is merely primus inter peres.

And although this highly insulated hierarchical chain of administrative command is, on the face of it, a desirable virtue that meets the fundamental end of guaranteeing both the independence of the judiciary and of the various levels of courts, nonetheless, the absence of an authoritative source of administrative command to right obvious wrongs especially during circumstances of exigent emergencies, -the like that Nigeria’s judiciary has been in for ages- is not without its negative telling effect.

For example, in the last over a decade now, between successive chief justices and heads of the various levels of court, it appears that even the necessary extra-judicial –or should we say administrative- synergy has continued to elude them in the efforts all this while to sidetrack the tedium of the legislative process and to create the much needed ‘special’ or ‘dedicated’ courts that the polity requires to tackle corruption and related ills that have continued to menace society.

Time and space

Nigeria’s judiciary has been suffused –unfortunately- with so many innocuous challenges such as these that have continued to be spanners in the judicial works and thus requiring of urgent reforms to fix. It was this kind of reform, especially to remove judicial and administrative bottlenecks on the path of the administration of justice in the land, that the late Justice Dahiru Musdapher in 2011, introduced in the barely eleven months of his tenure as Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN.

But even as elaborately conceived as the Musdapher judicial reform was, the apparent paucity of administrative time and space in his 11-months’ tenure, had necessitated that the initiative had to be largely a foundational one that should be a means-to-an-end rather than an end in itself. The late chief justice had intended that successive vhief justices after him should carry on with the reforms until it met the goal of returning the judiciary as the proverbial last hope of the common man.

And to set the necessary currents for the achievement of this lofty long term objective Musdapher had used his meager tenure mostly to stir the judicial hornet’s nest in a manner that was as well a public inquisition on the Nigerian judiciary as it was also a reproof and a clarion call on the judicial arm of government to rise above the morass of its sins and to return to that high ground of judicial righteousness that it had once occupied.

But he had also set in motion virtually all the necessary processes for the holistic reform of the physical, ethical and moral substructures of the Nigerian judicial system -its dilapidated courts, its decrepit administrative machinery and especially its dismal continuing-judicial-education program for which already a serious decline had set in, particularly in the intellectual capacity of judicial officers to effectively and efficiently deliver justice.

The heart of the Musdapher reform

Justice Musdapher had suggested reform ideas that were holistic and many of which were in fact radical and revolutionary. Among other things for example he had called for: 1) a review of the requirements for appointment of judges so that in addition to pure merit, the morals of prospective appointees should also count; and 2) extending the current mode of judicial appointments (especially into superior courts) to include those outside the judiciary, so as to provide wider diversity of experience and add quality to judicial deliberations in court;

He also recommended: a) the need to relieve the National Judicial Council NJC of dealing with petitions, discipline and removal of judicial officers in favor only of formulating broad policies for, and judicial appointments in, the judiciary; b) the creation of a separate discipline-only body and to which should be added the duty of ‘Intelligence Measurement Performance System’ for weeding under-performing officers out of the judiciary; and c) the establishment of a separate body for the preemption and punishment of judicial conducts that are corruptive of the system.

In fact, to entrench the reform initiative, the late Justice Musdapher had even proposed to the National Assembly, NASS, a ‘Fifth Alteration’ Draft Bill 2012 with 53 items which he proposed either for fresh enactments, amendments, or outright abrogation.

On the whole the Reform was targeted at restoring five key universal components of judicial administration, namely:

1) an ‘Independent Judicial System’ with a self-governing, independent budget-authority and a rule-and-policy making autonomy; 2) a ‘Transparent Judicial System’ that guarantees open judicial selection, promotion, discipline, removal from office of judicial officers and open access to court proceedings; 3) an ‘Accountable Judicial System’ with an effective case management, clear judicial productivity and performance standards; 4) an ‘Efficient Judicial System’ with standardized training and education, improved access to justice, and above all one that is fast, certain, consistent and predictable in delivering justice; and lastly; 5) a ‘Dignified Judicial System’ that enjoys the respect, awe and confidence of the public and before which every citizen feels a sense of duty to willingly subjugate.

Tanko’s date with history

Justice Musdapher, from the outset, was clear that for the reform to succeed it must be holistic in nature: it must leave ‘no stone unturned’ in the entrenchment of progressive ideas and it must leave ‘no turn un-stoned’ in purging the system of old-fashioned regressive ones. But most importantly since time was grossly at a premium for his 11-month tenure, he did say that for the Reform to succeed, it must be sustained beyond judicial regimes and it must be consistent.

Now Justice Tanko has a date with history. He has, like I said, both the advantage of time and space to write his name in gold by conducting an even more far-reaching reaching judicial reform program than any of his predecessors. He still has about three years on the Judicial saddle.

And if it is any consolation for the chief justice, he still has in the judicial system not only the archive of the Musdapher reform at his disposal, but he has also some of the excellent arrow heads who had spearheaded that reform ready to be had just for the asking. Meaning that it is not only ‘time’ and ‘space’ that are on Justice Tanko’s side, but ‘men’ and ‘materials’ also.

If the ‘wind’ as they say ‘is on the side of the ablest navigator’, the ‘wind’ has no reason not to be on the side of one with ‘time’ and ‘space’ and ‘men’ and ‘material’.

Adamu writes from Abuja

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