By Olusegun Adeniyi
This is not the best of times for the Nigerian judiciary. Then serving minister, Mrs Pauline Tallen, sucker-punched a court decision last year, describing it as a ‘Kangaroo judgement’ and the echoes now reverberate. A respected former Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) president, Olisa Agbakoba, SAN, alleged last week that Supreme Court Justices operate like a Mafia (at a forum attended by the president). And a retiring Justice of the same court recently ‘broke Omarta’ by hinting that judicial appointments are now reserved for “children, spouses, and mistresses of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices”. This crisis of confidence in justice administration/dispensation in Nigeria will not be resolved by self-help, such as banning a politician from holding public office because she made a comment considered “reckless, and disparaging”. It will only exacerbate it.
Meanwhile, I am aware that many readers of this column expect my position on the political brigandage in Rivers State. I understand the motives of those invested in what is little more than predatory politics by the two sides (of same coin) even while pretending they are moved by higher values. What I consider beyond scandalous is that the presidency would get involved in a blackmarket political deal that neither promotes the rule of law nor advances public decency. Whatever may be our positions (and there is hardly any neutral commentator in this power struggle which is not about Rivers’ people), what is happening in the state poses less threat to the health of our democracy than the way our judiciary is falling (or being dragged) into disrepute. That is my concern today, especially since the tragic drama in Rivers State has only just begun. More will unfold.
On 16 October last year, Mrs Pauline Tallen, then Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, attended the alumni meeting of the Federal Government Girls College Bida. At the forum, she took a swipe at a “Kangaroo judgement” of the Federal High Court in Yola which “should be rejected by all well-meaning Nigerians”. In the said judgement, the court had nullified the candidature of Aishatu Dahiru aka Benani as the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) flagbearer for Adamawa State in the 2023 general election. Two days after her remark, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) president, Yakubu Maikyau, SAN, asked Tallen to apologise or face legal action. When Tallen gave him and his exco the ‘Kangaroo treatment’ by ignoring them, the NBA filed a case in court. “I am bringing this woman before your Lordships because she is impugning on your integrity”, was the charge regardless of how they may have framed it. And the outcome was predictable.
Interestingly, it was the NBA that told Nigerians on Monday that an Abuja court had indeed “declared that the said statement of Dame Pauline Tallen (the defendant) was unconstitutional, careless, reckless, disparaging, a call to disobey the judgment of court and therefore contemptuous of the Federal High Court of Nigeria.” The NBA went further to report “an injunction restraining Dame Pauline Tallen from holding any public office in Nigeria, unless she purges herself of the ignoble conduct by publishing a personally signed apology letter to Nigerians and the judiciary,” and that “the injunction restraining the defendant from holding any public office in Nigeria shall become perpetual if she fails to abide by the order directing her to publish an apology letter within 30 days.”
Before we go further, it is necessary to understand the meaning of Kangaroo Judgement. The Mariam-Webster dictionary defines ‘Kangaroo Court’ as “a mock court in which the principles of law and justice are disregarded or perverted” or “a court characterized by irresponsible, unauthorized, or irregular status or procedures.” That, I suppose, is self-explanatory since I don’t want Maikyau and his NBA to ask an Abuja court to restrain me from traveling to my beloved Kwara State for Christmas. But considering that the judgement over which the NBA is crying more than the bereaved was unanimously overturned at the Court of Appeal, could it be that Mrs Tallen knew something that we don’t? Besides, what did she say that lawyers have not said?
On Tuesday, Jibril Jimeta, an official of Adamawa State branch of NBA, said in Yola: “Corruption in the legal profession is now in full scale às some of our members serve as the conduit for exchange of money between the judges and litigants.” What do you call a judgement that comes from such a process? In November last year, Maikyau’s predecessor, Olumide Akpata said in the United States during the International Bar Association convention that politicians have taken control of most Nigerian courts to solidify their hold on power. “In my jurisdiction, what happens is that from the point of view of appointment, the process is opaque. So, people who are not supposed to be on the Bench get to the Bench,” argued Akpata who added, “Because politicians recognise that the way to political power now is the judiciary, they do everything to take over the appointment process, ensure the judiciary is not well paid, and make the system dysfunctional.”
Maikyau of course said nothing to that. Nor was there an NBA uproar in April 2017 when Lagos Lawyer, Femi Falana, SAN, declared that “courts in Nigeria are supermarkets where justice is sold.” He made the statement as a guest speaker at the opening of the Law Week of the Enugu Branch of the NBA on the theme ‘Corruption and the justice sector: Implications for the rule of law and democracy’. When Justice J. D. Peters of the National Industrial Court invited Falana, he challenged the summon on grounds that the Judge lacked the jurisdictional competence to summon him for the purpose of explaining a comment credited to him (Falana) in the media. And nothing happened.
Of course, former National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) Chairman, Chidi Odinkalu, has for years been speaking about how judicial appointments have been corrupted in the country. “It is not suitable for the Chief Justice of Nigeria to appoint his nephew to the Court of Appeal and his son to the Federal High Court or for the President of the Court of Appeal to appoint her son-in-law to the bench and her daughter appointed to Plateau State High Court where she comes from,” Odinkalu said last month in a frontal accusation against CJN Olukayode Ariwoola who remains silent on the scandal. These are issues in public knowledge. So, why are the NBA looking away on what their colleagues are saying while harassing Mrs Tallen? When courts of concurrent jurisdiction issue conflicting orders on the same matter, how do you describe such judgement?
In any case, many of our Judges have also made open disclosures about the rot within. In June last year, for instance, 14 Supreme Court Justices (including the current CJN Ariwoola) sent a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari alleging “the height of decadence, and clear evidence of the absence of probity and moral rectitude” at the apex court under the then CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad. They also warned of an “imminent danger to the survival of this court and the judiciary as an institution which is gradually drifting to extinction.” If we add the damaging allegations in their letter to those in Justice Dattijo’s valedictory speech, it is not too much for rational people to conclude that what would emanate from courts manned by such Judges would be ‘Kangaroo judgements.’
Now, let’s examine Maikyau’s matter. I am not a lawyer, but it is common knowledge that the only way the court can deal with whoever has offended it is by initiating a contempt proceeding. While there is no general definition of contempt of court, criminal codes in all common law countries describe it as a criminal offence that derives its essential from the conduct of an individual, (either in the court or outside the court) that is calculated to impinge on the process of the courts. The common examples given in criminal codes of countries like England, Canada and Nigeria include failure to appear in court, not complying with a court order, refusing to testify and conduct that obstructs or interferes with judicial process. Thus, the controversial suit initiated by Maikyau’s NBA raises the question: Is a civil suit a proper proceeding to deal with this type of ‘contempt’?
While lawyers describe themselves as ministers in the temple of justice which invariably makes them a stakeholder, I do not think that NBA should be the one to initiate proceedings that would lead to this kind of bizarre conclusion. The NBA, like anyone, can draw the attention of the court to Mrs Talllen’s statement and the court can prescribe a specific period within which she should appear before it. Therefore, the order that Ms Tallen should apologise within 30 days may stand but the controversial sanction imposed by the court without any contempt proceedings that would have afforded her a defence makes no sense to me. How does calling a court ‘a kangaroo court’ over a concluded case be considered a conduct that interferes in the administration of justice? In an article written by a renowned Nigerian law firm, Lexavier Partners titled ‘Committal Proceedings in Nigeria-Processes and Procedures’, the writer aptly quoted the profound words of Muhammed JSC in the Supreme Court case of OMOIJAHE V. UMORU that “It is justice itself that is flouted by contempt of court, not the individual court or judge who is attempting to administer it.”
However, to the extent that only the law can moderate whatever may be the misgivings of citizens about those who man the temple of justice in our country, Mrs Tallen could have been more circumspect in her criticisms of the judgement. Especially because she was a serving minister at the time. But her refusal to apologise is also significant. I therefore believe we should all wait for the 30-day ultimatum to elapse before we take a Kangaroo view of the situation.
For now, all eyes are on the NBA given that what their former president said is far more damaging than that of Tallen. “I was the first, accompanied by my brother, Wole Olanipekun, who applied because we thought we were qualified to sit at the Supreme Court. The mafia there threw us out”, Agbakoba said at the ostentatious 61st birthday ceremony of Senate President Godswill Akpabio where he (Agbakoba) narrated the experience of his failed attempt to move from the Bar to the Apex Court. “What the constitution says is that once you are 15 years (at the bar), you are qualified (to be justice of the Supreme Court). But the National Judicial Council and the Supreme Court justices have formed a mafia… With the greatest respect, this is the worst Supreme Court I have seen in my 45 years of practice.” I wonder what Maikyau intends doing about Agbakoba. Drag him before the apex court and say, “Your Lordships, Agbakoba has alleged that you now behave like Mario Puzo’s Don Corleone, should he still remain a free man?”
It is unfortunate that the NBA would be playing the ostrich rather than acknowledge a problem. In our country today, there are Judges who trade in ‘Kangaroo judgements’, a fallout from how they got to the bench in the first place. As Justice Dattijo recently reminded Nigerians in his valedictory speech, unlike in the past when “appointment to the bench was strictly on merit,” that is no longer the case. “It is asserted that the process of appointment to judicial positions are deliberately conducted to give undue advantage to the ‘children, spouses, and mistresses’ of serving and retired judges and managers of judicial offices”, he stated. The consequence: “Public perceptions of the judiciary have over the years become witheringly scornful and monstrously critical. It has been in the public space that court officials and judges are easily bribed by litigants to obviate delays and or obtain favourable judgments.”
In this same country, Chukwudifu Oputa was Chief Judge of Imo State and Kayode Eso, Chief Judge of Oyo State when they were appointed to the Supreme Court while others such as Teslim Elias and Augustine Nnamani were serving Attorneys General of the Federation before being appointed to the apex court bench. Such appointments no longer happen because the National Judicial Commission (NJC) chaired by every sitting CJN has decided that only those who rise through the ranks make the appellate benches.
At a webinar with the theme, ‘Selection and appointment of judges: Lessons for Nigeria’ organised by Justice Research Institute (JRI) in October 2020, then Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, said, “If we leave it (appointment of Judges) to the system that is going on at the moment; we are clearly headed in the wrong direction because interest whether the private, political or group influences how judges are appointed”. He then recommended: “We must agree to an objective process to rigorously examine, test and interview all of those who want to come forward as judges.”
Unfortunately, the administration in which Osinbajo served did nothing about judicial reform despite repeated promises. Now, Maikyau’s NBA wants to ‘Kangaroo’ Nigerians to silence. They will fail!
Lanrewaju Adepoju (1940 to 2023)
It is unfortunate that despite deploying his prodigious intellect for the promotion of Yoruba language and culture, ‘Ewi Exponent’, Lanrewaju Adepoju died on 10th December this year almost unsung. I am surprised that nobody around President Bola Tinubu had the presence of mind to nudge him to commiserate with Adepoju’s family. And we are talking about a genuine Yoruba icon (with millions of followers before the advent of social media) who incidentally once released a famous track, ‘Tinubu F’omo Yo’ when the president was governor in Lagos.
What is perhaps more worrisome is that Ewi (a form of Yoruba musical poetry) promoted by Adepoju, the late Tubosun Oladapo and a few others are going extinct. And with that, we are being denied the wisdom, the artistry and the chastening/conscious music of that genre in an age of mostly racy entertainment devoid of meaning. Therefore, with Adepoju’s death, something significant has also died in the cultural universe, especially when such genres are not being renewed or sustained.
Incidentally, I share a common admiration for Adepoju’s works with my former lecturer at Ife, Biodun Alao, currently a professor of African Studies at King’s College, London and the programme director of the African Leadership Centre. During one of his visits to Nigeria last year, Professor Alao gave me a most treasured gift: the entire collection of Adepoju’s works in one flash disk! Numbering 128 in all, they include such classics as ‘Edibo Fun Baba’ (easily the political mobilization song of the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo in 1979), Alagbara (powerful man), Omo Oduduwa (children of Oduduwa), Ojo Idajo (Day of Judgement), Nibo La n Lo? (Where are we headed in Nigeria?), Iku Abacha (The death of Abacha) etc.
For members of the X generation who may wonder why Adepoju was important, the Poetry Translation Centre described him as an autodidact who taught himself to read and write in Yorùbá and English. “But his time spent with the griots (West African poets and storytellers) gave him a vast knowledge of the Yorùbá verbal arts and culture that informed his mature work. He worked in a newspaper house as a proofreader, then became a poet, publishing a collection titled ‘Ìrònú Akéwì’ in 1972, as well as a novelist, publishing ‘Ládépò Omo Àdánwò’ in 1975. The novel was later made into a movie in 2005.”
At a period in history when appointments were merit-driven and knowledge was more important than paper qualifications, Adepoju’s poetry earned him a job at the Western Nigerian Broadcasting Service in the seventies, although he later resigned to become an independent poet and record producer. Renowned for his politically charged poetry, Adepoju was, “at different times, a poetic conscience for the Yorùbá-speaking nation, a scourge on politicians, an advocate for the masses, a religious leader whose poems often took on proselytizing characteristics, and eventually a spokesperson for politicians and administrators whose positions he supported,” according to his profile by the Poetry Translation Centre. He of course paid a price for his stand on public issues: “He was detained by military administrators for some of his activism. His insistent political positions lost him some of his supporters, but the talent behind his voice and words was never questioned. He is one of the most notable exponents of the ewì spoken-word poetry in Yorùbá, and one of the most influential voices in the genre.”
A respected Islamic scholar in his own right, Adepoju has been buried. But if there is any Yorubaman who deserves a lasting memorial, Adepoju is one. I hope the Governor of Oyo State, Seyi Makinde, will do something in honour of the late Alasa of Ibadanland. May God comfort the family he left behind.
• You can follow me on my X (formerly Twitter) handle, @Olusegunverdict and on www.olusegunadeniyi.com