J. Reuben Clark Law Society

Africa West Chapter Urges Judicial Independence in Face of Executive Overreach


By Wariboko T. Melville, Chapter Chair
 
The Africa West Chapter of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society recently concluded a multi-country conference in Nigeria centered on protecting the judiciary from “political correctness.” This is an extremely germane issue for Nigeria and other developing countries.

To understand the significance of this theme, a background on Nigeria’s political climate and government is useful. Nigeria’s democracy is a presidential democracy with a legislative branch made up of the Senate and House of Representatives. Each of Nigeria’s states has a legislative branch and judiciary similar to the United States’ system. Before a judicial officer can be removed from office, a professional body known as the National Judicial Council (NJC) must recommend the removal. The removal of a chief justice requires the recommendation of the Senate.

The conference theme was reached after a critical examination of the current plight of the Nigerian judiciary. It is common knowledge among lawyers and judges that the executive arm of Nigerian government often controls, or seeks to control, the decisions of the judiciary. Judicial officers who have refused to comply with executive-branch interference have been smeared in the media or even removed from office. The situation has deteriorated to the point that the executive branch routinely ignores court rulings. Additionally, several judges have been arrested.

The recent removal of the chief justice of Nigeria without Senate or NJC recommendation has brought the issue of lack of judicial independence and impartiality to the forefront. The current climate requires judges to be politically correct or risk arrest or dismissal. It was Nigeria’s intention to have a courageous bar and bench that would be impartial to all who sought justice, but africawest1that has not occurred.

The conference began with the keynote speech by Chief Justice Esohe F. Ikponmwen, of Edo State, who spoke on this relevant and apt subject. Justice Ikponmwen explained what political correctness meant: “The judiciary is not to offend or respect anybody in the discharge of its duty of interpreting the law. This can only be achieved when the courts are allowed to be the rudders upon which our democracy is kept afloat. The judiciary ought to be the check for both legislative and executive arms of government by its power of interpretation, not given to political correctness. The independence of the judiciary is fundamental to the defense of human rights, preservation of the rule of law, and the consolidation of democracy. Judicial independence is the ability of a court as a constitutional creation for law interpretation and crisis resolution, to deliver decisions free from external influences emanating from undue pressure by an outside source—especially other branches of government.”

Justice Ikponmwen recounted the beauty of judicial independence as explained by the International Bar Association (IBA), which states that to achieve that aim, three elements must exist, namely personal, substantive, and internal independence. Judges must resolve cases based on their sincere preferences, then their rulings must be obeyed, even by the executive branch. She remarked that this is not currently happening in developing countries, particularly in Nigeria, with prevalent reports of the executive branch showing disregard for court orders. Therefore, she recommended that the bar and bench work together to create more awareness in society of the need for judicial independence.

The next speaker, Justice Ukana of the High Court of Akwa Ibom, added more flesh to the discussion as he emphasized that the judges’ oath mandated their impartiality in the discharge of their duties. He concluded by arguing that the decay of the judiciary could be attributed to political correctness in law schools, which should be eradicated.
Judge Andrus, a retired U.S. judge, and Law Society International Chair Stephen West also emphasized the need for impartiality of judges in the discharge of their duties in accordance with their oaths.
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A robust discussion ensued where the 36 participants stated that it would be dangerous to allow judges to have complete independence for fear that they might misuse such a right. It was then pointed out that the NJC’s function was to check against such excesses of judges. Justice Ikponmwen, concluded the discussion by saying, “You know which judges are corrupt, but you do nothing to stop it. Furthermore, you help them in their corruption by mingling with them, thus encouraging them.” It was resolved that the bar and bench would stand firm to work toward a truly independent judiciary.

This conference was the 10th annual conference of the Africa West Chapter. The Africa West Chapter has members in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, with members from Sierra Leone soon joining. The conference was organized by Law Society member Aniofiok Dennis Akpan, a legislator with the Akwa Ibom State House of Assembly, under the direction of Chapter Chair Wariboko T. Melville. It should be noted that Aniofiok was re-elected to this high office in February. Other notable membership developments include Declan Madu’s call as Mission President of the Nigeria Benin City Mission in July, and Ebi-Williams Monkhrai’s appointment as Special Advisor to the Governor of Bayelsa, one of 36 Nigerian states. Also, of note is that for the first time an international chair attended in person this year rather than via Skype.

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Posted: 2019-09-18

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