The Judiciary in Nigeria, Erosion of Trust and Quest for Justice

By Dr Sonny Onyegbula

THE JUDICIARY, a vital institution in any democratic society, is often revered as the ultimate safeguard against injustice and the bastion of hope for the ordinary citizen.

Entrusted with the noble responsibility of upholding justice, protecting individual rights, and ensuring the rule of law, the judiciary plays a pivotal role in maintaining social order and promoting democratic values.

However, in the context of Nigeria, the capacity of the judiciary to fulfil this mandate has been a subject of intense scrutiny and concern. Despite its importance, the Nigerian judiciary has faced numerous challenges that have eroded public trust and confidence in its ability to deliver justice.

The performance of the has been marred by allegations of corruption, incompetence, and executive interference, which have undermined its independence and integrity. As a result, many Nigerians have lost faith in the ability of the judiciary to protect their rights and provide a fair and impartial platform for dispute resolution.

This article explores the performance of the judiciary in Nigeria, examining its ability to uphold justice and protect citizens’ rights. It critically analyses decided cases, legal jurisprudence, and insights from legal scholars and judges to investigate whether the Nigerian judiciary truly lives up to its mandate as the last bastion of hope for the ordinary person.

By examining the strengths and weaknesses of the judiciary, this article hopes to contribute to the ongoing discourse on judicial reform and promoting justice in Nigeria.
Nigeria’s judiciary has a storied past, marked by notable judges who have left an enduring legacy in the legal profession.

Justice Kayode Eso, renowned for his unwavering commitment to justice and his courageous stance against corruption, is often celebrated as a paragon of judicial excellence.

Similarly, Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, distinguished for his erudite judgements and unrelenting pursuit of justice, has left an indelible mark on the legal landscape. However, in recent years, the judiciary has confronted numerous challenges that have tarnished its reputation and eroded public trust.

Corruption, a pervasive malaise that has afflicted various institutions in Nigeria, has also besmirched the judiciary. Some judges have been accused of accepting bribes, compromising justice, and perpetuating injustice.

Executive interference has also significantly threatened the independence and integrity of the judiciary. The executive arm of government has often attempted to judgements.
Inadequate funding has further hamstrung the judiciary, hindering its ability to function effectively.

The lack of resources has resulted in inadequate infrastructure, poor remuneration for judges and staff, and limited legal research and training resources.

This has further compromised the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice efficiently and effectively.

Despite these challenges, there are still many dedicated and principled judges in Nigeria who remain committed to upholding justice and protecting citizens’ rights.

However, the judiciary must confront these challenges head-on, implementing reforms and measures to address corruption, executive interference, and inadequate funding. Only then can the judiciary fulfil its mandate as a bastion of hope for the ordinary person in Nigeria.

The landmark case of Uzoukwu v. Ezeonu (2014) was a significant milestone in Nigeria’s judicial history.

The Supreme Court unequivocally affirmed the sacred responsibility of the judiciary to protect the rights of citizens and ensure that justice is served. This ruling was hailed as a triumph for human rights and the rule of law, and it reinforced the role of the judiciary as a bulwark against tyranny and oppression.
However, despite this landmark ruling, the judiciary has often failed to live up to its duty to protect citizens’ rights and uphold justice. In the case of Afolabi v. Governor of Lagos State (2016), the court failed to hold the government accountable for its brazen violation of a citizen’s property rights. The government had illegally demolished the citizen’s property without due process or compensation, yet the court inexplicably refused to intervene and protect the citizen’s rights.
Similarly, in the case of Akingbade v. Governor of Oyo State (2018), the court failed to hold the government accountable for its egregious human rights violations.

The government had been accused of perpetrating violence and intimidation against citizens, yet the court failed to investigate and address these allegations. This failure to act sent a chilling message to citizens that the judiciary did not value or protect their rights.

These cases illustrate a disturbing trend in Nigeria’s judiciary, where the rights of citizens are often sacrificed at the altar of political expediency or government interests. The failure of the judiciary to uphold its duty to protect citizens’ rights has eroded public trust and confidence in the institution and has perpetuated a culture of impunity and injustice. It is imperative that the judiciary reflects on these failures and recommit itself to its sacred duty to protect the rights of citizens and uphold justice.

Legal scholars and jurists have consistently lamented the struggles of the judiciary in Nigeria, citing pervasive corruption, glaring incompetence, and debilitating executive interference as significant obstacles to its effectiveness.

Professor Olawale Fapohunda, a renowned legal expert, has eloquently argued that these factors have severely hampered the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice and uphold the rule of law (Fapohunda, 2017).

Similarly, Justice Kayode Eso, a respected jurist, has candidly acknowledged the failure of the judiciary to assert its independence and uphold the rule of law, thereby compromising its integrity and public trust (Eso, 2013).
Furthermore, Professor Itse Sagay, a distinguished legal scholar, has critiqued the judiciary for its sluggish pace and lack of transparency, which erode public confidence and perpetuated injustice (Sagay, 2019).

These scathing critiques from respected legal minds underscore the urgent need for reform and revitalization in the judiciary to reclaim its role as a bastion of justice and defender of citizens’ rights.

The convergence of these voices highlights the systemic failures of the judiciary and underscores the imperative for comprehensive reforms to address corruption, incompetence, and executive interference.

By heeding these critiques and embarking on meaningful reforms, the judiciary can restore public trust, reaffirm its independence, and fulfil its sacred mandate to uphold justice and protect citizens’ rights.
Corruption, including the judiciary, has become a profoundly ingrained malady in Nigerian society. It perpetuates a culture of impunity and undermines the very fabric of justice.

Judges and court officials have been accused of soliciting bribes, accepting gratifications, and peddling influence, all in exchange for judgements that favour the highest bidder. This brazen corruption has ravaged public trust, rendering the judiciary a shadow of its former self.

The cancer of corruption has metastasised, infecting every level of the judicial system. Many magistrates and justices have been accused of compromising justice for personal gain. Court officials, too, have been implicated in this web of corruption, manipulating records and processes to favour those willing to pay the price.

As Justice Eso so aptly described, corruption in the judiciary is a cancer that must be surgically removed (Eso, 2013).

The very existence of the judiciary depends on its ability to dispense justice impartially and fairly.

However, corruption has reduced this noble institution to a mere marketplace where justice could be bought and sold.

The consequences of this corruption are far-reaching. Public trust has been irreparably damaged, and confidence in the judiciary has plummeted. Many now view the judiciary as a tool for the powerful and corrupt rather than a bastion of justice for all. As a result, many citizens have lost faith in the system, resorting to extra-judicial means to resolve disputes.

The need for urgent reform cannot be overstated. The judiciary must be purged of corrupt elements, and a new culture of transparency and accountability must be cultivated. Only then can the judiciary hope to regain public trust and fulfil its sacred mandate to uphold justice and protect the rights of all Nigerians.

The executive arm of government’s persistent interference with the judiciary has severely compromised the latter’s independence and integrity.

By attempting to influence judgements and intimidate judges, the executive has brazenly disregarded the separation of powers, a fundamental tenet of democracy. This egregious overreach has resulted in a miscarriage of justice, where the legal process is manipulated to serve the interests of those in power.

As Professor Fapohunda stated, “Executive interference is a threat to the rule of law and democracy” (Fapohunda, 2017).

This interference undermines the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice impartially and erodes public trust in the legal system. When the executive arm of government interferes with the judiciary, it sends a chilling message that the law is subordinate to political whims rather than a sacred institution that protects citizens’ rights.
The consequences of this interference are far-reaching and devastating.

Judges, fearful of retribution, may hesitate to deliver judgements that contradict the executive’s wishes, leading to a culture of silence and complicity. The rule of law is thereby subverted, and democracy is reduced to a mere facade.

Measures must be taken to prevent executive interference and ensure judicial autonomy to restore the independence of the judiciary and uphold the rule of law. This includes strengthening institutional safeguards, promoting judicial independence, and holding accountable those who attempt to undermine the integrity of the judiciary. Only then can the judiciary genuinely serve as a bulwark against tyranny and a champion of justice for all.

The judiciary in Nigeria has faced chronic underfunding, severely impeding its ability to perform its constitutional duties. This persistent underfunding has led to numerous challenges, including inadequate infrastructure, poor remuneration, limited resources, outdated technology, insufficient personnel, delayed justice, and eroded public trust.

Our courts lack modern facilities, resulting in overcrowding, poor sanitation, and inadequate security.

Judges and staff receive meagre salaries, making it challenging to maintain a decent standard of living. Insufficient funds hinder legal research, training, and development, leaving judges and staff without up-to-date knowledge and skills.

The judiciary lacks modern technology, making it difficult to efficiently manage cases, store records, and facilitate communication. Insufficient funding has led to a shortage of qualified staff, resulting in a heavy workload for judges and support staff. This has contributed to a significant backlog of cases, leading to prolonged delays in the administration of justice.

The inability of the judiciary to function effectively has eroded public confidence, leading to widespread disillusionment with the legal system.

Addressing the chronic underfunding of the judiciary is crucial to restoring its effectiveness, independence, and integrity. This requires increased resource allocation, efficient fund management, and a commitment to modernizing infrastructure, technology, and personnel.
Only then can the judiciary fulfil its vital role in upholding justice and protecting Nigerians’ rights.

The government and stakeholders must prioritize judicial funding to ensure a fair and functional legal system and foster public trust and confidence in the judiciary.

The failure of the judiciary to uphold justice and protect citizens’ rights has severe and far-reaching consequences. When the judiciary fails to deliver justice, citizens lose faith in the legal system, leading to widespread disillusionment and mistrust. This erosion of public trust can have devastating effects on the fabric of society.

Another significant consequence of a failed judiciary is the perpetuation of impunity. When perpetrators are not held accountable for their actions, a culture of impunity emerges, encouraging individuals to commit crimes without fear of consequences. This can lead to a breakdown in law and order as individuals take matters into their own hands, resulting in vigilantism and further destabilization.

A weakened judiciary also undermines democracy, compromising the rule of law and paving the way for authoritarianism and the subversion of democratic institutions. The dis-empowerment of vulnerable groups, who are disproportionately affected by the failure to protect citizens’ rights, exacerbates existing social and economic inequalities.

Furthermore, a compromised judiciary discourages foreign investment, hinders economic growth, and undermines the rule of law essential for a thriving economy.

The erosion of the separation of powers also leads to an imbalance in the democratic governance structure, allowing the executive and legislative branches to overstep their bounds.

Lastly, a failed judiciary damages Nigeria’s reputation globally, hindering its ability to participate in international affairs and undermining its standing in the global community.

The consequences of a failed judiciary are profound and far-reaching, highlighting the urgent need for reform and revitalization to restore public trust, uphold justice, and protect citizens’ rights.

Efforts to reform the judiciary have been ongoing, with notable steps taken to address this vital institution’s systemic challenges.

Establishing the National Judicial Council (NJC) by the Military Government in 1999 via the Nigerian Judicature (Amendment) Decree No. 62 of 1999 has promoted judicial independence, discipline, and accountability. Various judicial reforms have enhanced the efficiency, transparency, and accountability of the judiciary.

Judicial training and capacity building have improved the quality of justice delivery. Upgrades to court facilities and technology have enhanced the functionality of the judiciary. Measures like asset declaration and performance evaluation have increased transparency and accountability within the judiciary.

Despite these efforts, more must be done to address the systemic challenges facing the judiciary comprehensively. Increased funding and resource allocation are essential to support the operations and modernization of the judiciary.

Robust judicial appointment and promotion processes must be implemented to ensure merit-based selection and advancement rather than what we see now, where many judges are drawn from relatives of political officeholders. Strengthening judicial independence and autonomy is crucial to ensure impartial decision-making. Enhancing public engagement and access to justice is vital to ensure that the judiciary serves the needs of all citizens.

Addressing the backlog of cases and improving court efficiency is necessary to reduce delays and ensure timely justice delivery.

Promoting diversity and inclusiveness within the judiciary ensures a representative and fair institution.

Strengthening judicial ethics and discipline is crucial to maintaining public trust and confidence.

Enhancing collaboration with other arms of government and stakeholders is necessary to ensure a coordinated approach to justice delivery. Implementing technological innovations can enhance justice delivery and improve access to justice. Consistent and effective implementation of reforms is essential to ensure lasting impact.

By building on progress and tackling the remaining challenges, Nigeria can establish a robust, efficient, and accountable judiciary that delivers justice and upholds the rule of law. This will enhance public trust and confidence in the judiciary, promote economic growth and development, and strengthen Nigeria’s democratic governance.

The judiciary in Nigeria plays a vital role in safeguarding citizens’ rights and upholding justice. Still, it has frequently fallen short of this responsibility, as evident in various court decisions and legal precedents. To revive public trust and confidence, the judiciary must take decisive steps to assert its independence, tackle corruption, and prioritize citizens’ rights.

As Justice Eso aptly stated, “The judiciary must be the last bastion of hope for the ordinary person” (Eso, 2013). This emphasizes the critical role of the judiciary as a guardian of justice and a beacon of hope for the ordinary person.

The judiciary must be a bulwark against tyranny, oppression, and injustice, providing a safe haven for those seeking redress and justice.

By asserting its independence, tackling corruption, and prioritizing citizens’ rights, the judiciary can regain public trust and confidence, which eroded perceptions of bias and corruption. It can ensure justice is served impartially, without fear or favour, and protect the vulnerable and uphold the rule of law, safeguarding against arbitrary power and abuse of authority.
This will strengthen democracy and the separation of powers, ensuring a balanced and functional system of government.

The reputation and credibility of the Judiciary will also be enhanced domestically and internationally.

Only then can the judiciary fulfil its constitutional mandate and become the bastion of hope for the ordinary citizen, as envisioned by Justice Eso. A strong, independent, and accountable judiciary is essential for Nigeria’s democratic growth, social justice, and human rights.

Based on the analysis, I recommend that the judiciary in Nigeria takes the following steps to regain public trust, strengthen democracy, and ensure access to justice for all who reside on the shores of this great nation:

The judiciary must assert independence and impartiality, free from executive interference and political pressure. This is essential to ensure that the judiciary can make decisions based solely on the law without fear or favour.

The judiciary must take decisive steps to address corruption within its ranks, ensuring transparent and accountable processes. This includes implementing measures to prevent corruption, investigating allegations of corruption, and taking disciplinary action against judges and staff found to be corrupt.

The judiciary must prioritize protecting citizens’ rights, providing access to justice, and ensuring fair treatment for all. This includes ensuring that all citizens have access to legal representation, regardless of their economic or social status.

Training and capacity-building programs should be established to enhance judges’ skills and knowledge. This includes training on legal precedent, judicial ethics, and best practices in judicial administration.

Adequate funding should be allocated to improve court infrastructure, technology, and facilities. This includes upgrading court buildings, providing modern technology, and ensuring adequate staffing and resources.

Measures like public access to court records, live streaming of proceedings, and performance evaluation should be implemented to enhance transparency and accountability in the judiciary.

Efforts should be made to increase diversity among judges and staff, ensuring a representative and inclusive judiciary. This includes ensuring that the judiciary reflects the diversity of the Nigerian population in terms of gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.

Outreach programs and public education initiatives should be established to enhance public understanding and trust in the judiciary. This includes educating citizens about their rights, the judicial process, and the role of the judiciary in democracy.

The judiciary should engage with legal professionals, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders to improve the administration of justice. This includes consulting with stakeholders on judicial reforms, seeking input on judicial policies, and collaborating on programs to improve access to justice.

Regular review and evaluation of judicial processes and performance should be conducted to ensure continuous improvement.

This includes conducting regular audits, reviewing judicial decisions, and evaluating the performance of judges and staff.
By implementing these recommendations, the judiciary in Nigeria can take a giant leap towards regaining public trust, strengthening democracy, and ensuring access to justice for all citizens.

Dr Sonny Onyegbula, a Legal Consultant writes in from Florida, USA.

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