It’s unusual to see judges cracking jokes in public because of their status and the air of mystique around them.
They are usually feared, revered and called ‘My Lord’. But Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Kayode Ariwoola, recently drew the ire of the opposition when he joked that he was happy that Oyo State Governor, Seyi Makinde, belonged to the “integrity group”.
The integrity group is an association of five governors of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who are opposed to the candidacy of the PDP Presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar.
Headed by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State, the other members of the group are Governor Makinde, Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu; Governor Okezie Ikpeazu (Abia) and Governor Samuel Ortom (Benue).
Sending fear to Atiku
At a banquet organised by Wike ahead of the inauguration of some projects meant for the judiciary, Justice Ariwoola sat on the high table alongside these governors.
Some serving judges and former Supreme Court justices were also present. The optics alone sent fear into Atiku’s camp but this was not all.
While delivering his speech, the chief justice showered encomiums on the Rivers governor, stating that Wike remained the best governor in the country, especially in the area of supporting the judiciary.
He jokingly stated Makinde would remain in Wike’s camp because Makinde’s wife and Wike were from the same state which made them in-laws.
“That is why we should not be scared to have these men of the integrity group and I am happy that my own governor (Makinde) is among them because he would try to imitate his friend and in-law,” the chief justice said.
While Justice Ariwoola’s joke elicited laughter from the audience, it sparked anger, especially in Atiku’s camp and the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state.
This would not be the first time that Justice Ariwoola would be seen socialising with Wike’s camp. Back in October, the chief justice, who is from Oyo State, was hosted at a lavish banquet by Governor Seyi Makinde to celebrate his appointment.
The judge took pictures and socialised with Governor Makinde, Wike and other ‘PDP rebel governors’.
But judges are not expected to hobnob with or socialise with politicians. Rule 1 of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Officers says that a judicial officer should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety in all his activities.
Rule 2(a) which pertains to social relationships specifically says, “A judicial officer must avoid social relationships that are improper or give rise to an appearance of impropriety, that cast doubt on the judicial officer’s ability to decide cases impartially, or that bring disrepute to the Judiciary.”
There have been fears about Wike’s alleged grip on the judiciary, especially in Rivers State where his wife is also a judge.
Ahead of Justice Ariwoola’s visit to the state, the Rivers State chapter of the All Progressives Congress (APC) had written an open letter to the chief justice, asking him to investigate some controversial judgments by some courts in the state that had barred APC candidates from contesting in the election.
“Our faith in the higher benches is unshaken and we believe the courts should not allow itself to be ridiculed by political actors as the rights of Rivers people to plural choices as guaranteed in multi-party democracy is being sabotaged,” the party said.
But Wike’s generosity towards the judiciary and their welfare continued to evoke fears that judges are now in his pocket.
The governor bought fancy cars for judges, built residences and also inaugurated projects which they would use.
Justice Ariwoola’s visit to Rivers State and his words of commendation towards Wike even worsened the fears.
“Many people will appreciate the fact that Governor Wike is a lover of the judiciary, there is no doubt about that and he deserves commendation. Nobody as a group and no governor in Nigeria has done nearly what he has done for the judiciary.
“Whether you like him or not, the legacies he is bestowing to generations unborn will be hard to beat,” the chief justice said.
Justice Ariwoola’s socialising with Wike and his camp has sparked fears about the judiciary’s neutrality ahead of the highly anticipated elections.
Although it’s the people who vote in Nigeria, it is judges that certify because results are always challenged in court.
Already the chief justice has inaugurated 277 election petition tribunal members to adjudicate on matters that will arise from the conduct of the polls.
For the presidential election, the chief justice and his panel of judges would likely be the ones to decide who will be the next president if past experiences are anything to go by.
And with Wike bent on ensuring Atiku does not win the election, there are palpable fears that his frolicking with the chief justice could be a major problem.
“Such hobnobbing between the CJN and politicians is unprecedented in the annals of the country…After God, the Supreme Court is the highest authority in our nation. It is therefore scary and most unfortunate that the man who leads Nigeria’s judicial arm continues to frolic with politicians less than three months to an election,” said Atiku’s spokesman, Phrank Shaibu.
But the chief justice said in a statement that he was only joking when he praised Governor Makinde for belonging to Wike’s group.
In a statement by his media advisor, Justice Ariwoola said it was unfortunate that people misunderstood his intentions.
“Everyone knows that Justice Olukayode Ariwoola is a judicial officer and not a politician, as such, would never directly or remotely make such comments or innuendoes,” the statement read.
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