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Nigeria’s Judiciary Now a Stamping Ground For Contempt – ACCESS TO JUSTICE

CHIEF JUSTICE OF NIGERIA, TANKO MOHAMMED 

On 14th June 2019, Governor of Kebbi State, Atiku Abubakar Bagudu removed Justice Elizabeth Asabe Karatu, from office as Acting Chief Judge of the State and appointed Justice Sulaiman Ambursa to act in that capacity, following the Kebbi State House of Assembly’s refusal to confirm Justice Karatu as substantive Chief Judge of the State. 

Before this time, Justice Karatu had petitioned the National Judicial Council (NJC) alleging, among other things, that she was being victimized by state authorities on grounds of her Christian faith and that Justice Sulaiman Ambursa had played a part in efforts to frustrate her confirmation as Chief Judge of the State. 

On July 5 2019, which was Justice Karatu’s last day in judicial office, she was effectively prevented from approaching her courtroom where she was scheduled to deliver the last of her judgement(s), by an officer of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps, who said his actions were in compliance with a directive given by undisclosed persons. 

Live footage of the scene showing Justice Karatu being prevented from entering her court has circulated widely on social and news media. 

The government of Kebbi State has not disputed, as much as we know, the current narrative of this event. 

Preventing Court Proceedings from Taking Place a Brutal Assault on Rule of Law and Judicial Independence

This is not the first time that Judges have been prevented from accessing their courts, recalling the events in Ekiti State in 2014.

In every instance where this happens through the deliberate act of a person or authority, it is a gratuitous contempt of the adjudicational authority of the courts as well as a grave assault on the rule of law and the administration of justice in Nigeria. 

It is one of the most sinister ways of preventing courts from playing their roles as arbiters of disputes and guardians of the liberties of the people and thereby represents a major threat to the rule of law and democracy. 

Legally speaking, what the official of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps did was a classic act of judicial contempt – contempt of court, in all of its complexion. 

Whoever authorized the said officer to prevent Justice Karatu from accessing her court is also a principal contemnor and all of them should be made accountable for their actions. 

It is also an interference with the administration of justice which is a criminal offence in quite a number of jurisdictions, including, possibly, Kebbi State

The incident has profound other implications: the day of the incident was the last official working day for Justice Karatu as a judicial officer. 

She was in court to deliver final verdicts. The Constitution requires that court proceedings must be held in open court. 

Preventing Justice Karatu from accessing her office invariably means that she couldn’t deliver her judgements in a legitimate way, and no longer could do so validly after that day. 

This means that the entire trial conducted on the case(s) due for judgment would return a blank, and the efforts and expenses of everyone involved in them in vain. 

This would be a huge travesty, and a major set-back for the access to justice rights of those concerned, given that the right to a fair and reasonably-timed trial is a constitutional right, besides representing a major waste of public resources expended in conducting the trial. 

Those responsible for interfering with the judicial process in this malevolently obstructive way and occasioning these futilities must be held responsible for their actions. 

A Strong Response Needed: What the Judiciary Must Do

If the Judiciary allows any form of this impunity to stand, it will shoot itself in the foot, inflicting harm on itself and its own powers and dignity, while opening the gates for repeat occurrences of similar acts in the future. 

If its responses come up short or light, it sends an ambivalent message about its own strength or resolve to defend itself when its core values are attacked, as well as its integrity as an institution of government. 

A weak response will further reduce the image of the Judiciary in the eyes of both members of the Judiciary and the wider public. 

The leadership of the Judiciary (in both Kebbi State and nationally) must therefore; fully, impartially and transparently investigate the incident and bring those responsible for interfering with the administration of justice in this way to account;

Related to this, it will also be particularly important to interrogate the response of the (acting) Chief Judge of Kebbi State Justice Sulaiman Ambursa to the incident and clarify whether he knew of it at the time it was taking place and responded to it in a manner expected of a person at the helm of the State’s Judiciary. 

Should his response be found wanting, this should be grounds for concluding that he cannot discharge the functions of a Chief Judge competently.  

Where the laws applicable in Kebbi State establish the offence of interference with the administration of justice, ensure criminal prosecution of all persons responsible for interfering with Justice Karatu’s right and duty to access her court room and deliver her judgments. 

Conclusion

If Nigeria’s Judiciary steps up to the plate, and offers a principled and bold intervention on this incident, this would be a significant way for the Judiciary’s new leadership to announce that change is underway and that the Judiciary will no longer be a stamping ground for acts capable of publicly ridiculing it. 

This is the kind of hope Nigerians desperately seek to see in the horizon, however distant it seems, particularly in these troubling times.  

Joseph Otteh,
Convener, Access to Justice.  

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