In contemporary political philosophy, John Rawls is the last man standing on the idea of justice. He said that justice is akin to the processes involved in the distribution of the goods of life. By ‘goods’, Rawls is generally referring to a lot of the things which you and I will reasonably desire to have: prosperity, a good life and control of the instruments in the society that promote the good life. But there can be no society wherein these goods have ever been equitably distributed. And the reason why these goods are not evenly distributed depends on ‘what principles of justice are reflected in the system of rights, laws, processes, and positions which help society function’.
Societies are not usually the same. Some are based on the utilitarian philosophy of life while others strive towards the concept of perfectionism. In Utilitarian societies, citizens get a feel that their welfare is adequately catered to. That is not the same case with perfectionist societies like Nigeria where justice or a semblance of it prevails only after the common man has been sacrificed for the benefit of the aristocracy. I must quickly clarify this: in the four years that I worked as a paralegal, I was to discover through my interactions with some of the finest lawyers in Nigeria that there is a lot of law without any corresponding justice. On one of those interactions, I wanted to find out why our laws would punish a man severely for stealing N100 to eat but slap a ‘big man’ on the wrist with a paltry fine if he steals billions. I found out that most of those who are alleged to have stolen a lot of money from us know the law and know that the law backs them. So why would they want to change or amend a law which backs them? As we speak, 15 ex-governors, 4 ex-ministers, 12 ex-public servants, and several business people are alleged to have pilfered over N1.3trillion ($424billion) in less than 20 years. That amount of money build 36 state of the art hospitals for children in the 36 states of Nigeria in less than 10 years.
But justice on its own is an abstract concept which relies on character and stellar disposition. Justice needs justices. That is why when the National Judicial Council, NJC, recently recommended the sack of three justices for offences ranging from abuse of office and acceptance of bribes to dispense justice, the world took notice. Before that incident, Nigerians had been inundated with several curious cases of conflicting judgements and counter judgements. Most of us with relationships with the purveyors of the law were struck numb. We couldn’t really fathom what the heck this was all about. Even though my good friend Chima Okereke strenuously attempted to lecture me why there were conflicting judgements in the Enugu governorship election tribunal, the whole thing still didn’t make sense. Why would a judgement dispensed by a learned judge who has not erred in law and facts not stand in another jurisdiction, if indeed the law is the law?
Therefore my struggle to make common sense of the shenanigans that were playing out in the judiciary with Enugugate brought the case of the wisest chap in the Holy Bible to fore. As king, he was judge between two women who claimed ownership of a baby. I am sure that it was how he dispensed with that case was why he earned the wisest-man-who-ever-lived sobriquet. But who today can apply that kind of wisdom and get judgement and justice? And so, if the sack of the learned chief justices has generated the kind of interest it has, I suggest that we also need to focus on the men and women who man the systems wherein the judges, lawyers and justices work. Let me tell you a story: as paralegal, part of my job involved filing briefs. A typical day for me involves serving the other party our brief, a ruling or judgement and filing briefs at court. In that position, I met many court clerks and bailiffs who will refuse to serve the other party my brief unless I grease their palm, or pay them a tithe. Now, that shouldn’t be a problem but what I found out is that a lot of these clerks and bailiffs know the facts of your brief and would be asking you to pay up based on the fee which your principal is assumed to have collected from a client. A court clerk sees nothing wrong in taking money from a lawyer to sex up the process in favour of whomsoever he collects a tithe.
So I suggest that as we focus on the Bar and Bench with a view to sanitize the judiciary, we must also beam our searchlights on those who have helped the system go the way it is. One of the reasons why so many high-profile corruption cases are still in limbo is that there is a human and Nigerian factor in the way of these cases. Let the present administration replicate what the Abuja High Court in Maitama is trying to do - rather than rely on the clerks, it has developed an online filing of briefs wherein at the touch of a button, you are able to know the facts of a case – the Judge, the prosecuting and defence counsels, and all other extenuating circumstances surrounding the case.
Etemiku is communications manager, ANEEJ, Nigeria.