Nigeria—or the Department of State Security (DSS), to be precise—starts an ostensible war against corruption in the judicial and said war quickly degenerates into an absurd exercise.
First, Nigerians woke up two weeks ago to the startling news that DSS agents had carried out overnight raids on the homes of “corrupt” judges, including two justices of the Supreme Court. For the first day or two, there were insinuations and murmurings, but little concrete information, about the operation.
Pundits and partisans seized the vacuum, offering deodorized or damning interpretations of what had transpired. Some praised Warrior-General, Muhammadu Buhari. They proclaimed that, at last, with not a moment too soon, he had set his sights on judicial sleaze. Others, less impressed, declared that a vindictive president with a military mindset had merely decided on a dangerous mission: to go after every judge who had ever delivered a judgment against his administration or dealt a blow to the electoral desires of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC).
By the time DSS came round to disclosing the haul of cash, especially hard currency, they had allegedly seized from the judges’ homes, the atmosphere was already rowdy, rife with partisan sniping. The so-called effort to sanitize the judiciary has become another Nollywood production. We are in the midst of a fiasco. It’s open to question whether anything going on here represents a legitimate, serious-minded war against corruption in the judicial branch. But here’s what I know: we have produced yet another proof that Nigeria is a space where something can be both totally white and totally black at the same time.
Let me illustrate with the current brouhaha over the arrest of some judges. If the operation by the DSS is indeed part and parcel of a strategy to identify and flush depraved judges, stinky interlopers who have stolen into the citadel of justice, it could also be the case that we are witnessing, simultaneously, an exercise to target justices who have checked the ambitions of the ruling party or its powerful members.
The DSS had its day and its say. Then the besieged judges took the stage to tell their own stories. Justice John Inyang Okoro of the Supreme Court gave an account of how he was tricked out of his home when an unknown caller told him he had a message from the President Muhammadu Buhari. He opened his door to the sight of a battalion of armed DSS agents who then proceeded to search his residence for more than four hours—after which they took him away.
Justice Okoro protested his personal probity, and alleged that former Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State—and now Minister of Transportation—had once paid him a visit at home and made an unsuccessful pitch to tempt him to suborn justice for a fee. The justice claimed that he had alerted Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Mahmud Mohammed, about the attempted inducement. He then accused a vengeful Amaechi of instigating the siege on his home and of manufacturing his travail. Mr. Amaechi responded, characterizing Justice Okoro as a dabbler in art of fiction.
If the minister’s characterization were valid, then Justice Okoro would be a short story writer compared to his other embattled colleague, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta, also of the Supreme Court of Ngwuta. In a lengthy statement, Justice Ngwuta gave an account of the raid on his residence that is worthy of a middlebrow novel. Like his colleague, he again cast Mr. Amaechi in the role of dreadful, mean-spirited antagonist.
Justice Ngwuta wrote: “My present plight started sometime between 2013 and 2014. I represented the then Chief Justice of Nigeria in an event organized in the International Conference Centre. Hon. Rotimi Amaechi came in late and sat next to me at the high table. He introduced himself to me and we exchanged contacts. A few weeks after, Fayose’s case was determined in the Court of Appeal. Amaechi called me by 6.45 am. He said he had come to see me but was told I had left for my office. When he said he would return in the evening, I demanded to know what he wanted but he would not tell me. He did not come that evening but came the following morning when I was already prepared to go to work. He begged me to ensure that Fayose’s election was set aside and another election ordered for his friend Fayemi to contest. I told him I would not help him and that even if I am on the panel I have only my one vote.
“After the Rivers State Governorship election was determined by the Court of Appeal, he called to tell me his ears were full and he would like to tell me what he heard. I told him I was out of Abuja at the time. On my return he came in the evening and even before he sat down he barked, ‘You have seen Wike’. I asked him whether that was a question or a statement. Then he made a call and asked me to speak with someone. The man he called said he was a DSS man. We exchanged greetings and I handed the phone to him. Next, he said, ‘Oga is not happy’. I asked him who is the unhappy ‘Oga’ and he answered ‘Buhari’. I retorted ‘go and talk to his wife’. He got very angry, and left, remarking ‘we shall see’ several times.
Former Governor Amaechi’s response to Justice Ngwuta was far less charitable than his retort to Justice Okoro. He declared his second judicial accuser as a shameless liar.
The verbal duels underscore what has become of Nigeria, a veritable republic of the absurd. In how many countries in the world do we have such squalid drama? In how many other countries would there be this kind of sordid conversation, exposing the ethical puniness of the men and women who preside over, and ruin, every sector of our life?
There’s a design to the madness of the people who have wrecked—and continue to wreck—Nigeria. They have something on one another, some narrative with which to wiggle out of trouble at any moment. Some pundits are bogged down, debating who’s telling the truth, who lying. I have a sneaking suspicion that truth as such was an early casualty in all this drama, that the major actors are role players in a complex game of deception. Nigerians know that their judiciary reeks of corruption, that too many judges hawk their verdicts to the highest bidder. Nigerians know that their politicians and rogue judges fraternize in ways that are unhealthy, undermining the idea of law and order. We know that politicians use public funds to romance filthy judgments out of wigged touts passing themselves off as judges.
A war against judicial corruption should be fought as part of a broader war against corruption in Nigeria. Tragically, President Buhari has not defined that broad, systemic template that would combat corruption within the Presidency and the DSS and the police and the military and academia and among the clergy, and so on. Heck, when the government acts in way that mocks the constitution, that’s is, above everything else, a corrupt act.