By Sufuyan Ojeifo
Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls once said: “If justice were to have a voice, she would speak as the English judge.” Denning’s compelling submission underscores the character of the British judiciary and its philosophical underpinning of impartial offering of justice. All Britons are confident that it is the nature of English courts to dispense justice in its undiluted form.
Perceptibly, that reality contrasts sharply with the Nigerian condition, which over the years, appears to have consistently declined, especially within the precincts of the lower courts. The Court of Appeal in Nigeria was, at an intersection, assailed by allegations of pecuniary interests by members of the political class in matters of election petitions.
Indeed, the Supreme Court has, over the years, diligently weighed in on the side of political stability, peace and national interest in giving verdicts in presidential election petition appeals. The apex court does not ordinarily admit of judicial activism without consideration for national interest.
For instance, there were sufficient grounds to nullify the 2007 presidential election on the basis of the petition filed by the defeated presidential candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Muhammadu Buhari. But because our democracy was still fragile, the panel of seven apex court justices that sat on the appeal saved democracy by a verdict of 4-3.
The suspended Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Walter Onnoghen, was one of the three justices that gave verdict in favour of Buhari; the two other justices were G.A Oguntade and Aloma Mariam Muktar. Four justices gave majority verdict in favour of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate and winner of the election, Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
Justice was dispensed in its finality to foster the “social engineering” philosophy of law to maintain national stability. And, this fits perfectly into former Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, Robert H. Jackson’s dictum succinctly describing the Supreme Court, inter alia, “we are not final because we are infallible but we are infallible because we are final.”
There is, therefore, a sense in which some people have thus rationalized a deliberate move by the Executive arm under President Buhari, ahead of the just-concluded 2019 general election, to weaken and compromise the Supreme Court’s capacity for finality and infallibility of verdicts. But now that our democracy has taken roots, it should be able to absorb the shocks of far-reaching judicial verdicts by the apex court.
This, perhaps, explicates Executive’s supposed resort to intimidation of the Judiciary in the performance of its law-interpretation function amid the reality that the finality and infallibility of Nigeria’s Supreme Court have become so writ large that it has created eternal fears for the political class. The apex court must therefore be rendered tentative in the performance of its function.
The Executive’s onslaught against some judges and the current travails of Onnoghen, at the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT), for alleged failure to declare some of his assets, are specific validations. In the final analysis, the overarching goal, to wit – demonisation of the Judiciary – as a temple of corruption, had turned the arm of government into a conclave of hesitant judicial officers. How so sad!
The impression the Executive and its agencies had created is that a culture of bribe-taking has crept into the Judiciary and the nation is left with the ramifications of danger or possibility that judgment, and not justice, has become a commodity on display at a judicial bazaar where the power of procurement of justice belongs to the highest bidders.
The sad developments have heightened national anxiety and feelings of collective doubt about the place of justice in the philosophical template of social engineering as an imperative raison d’être of law. When the Judiciary that is reputed to be the bastion of justice and the last hope of the common man is allegedly turned into a bazaar for the highest bidders, it spawns tragedy of very great proportions.
Perhaps, that was the essential motivation behind the rash of onslaughts against the judicial officers (read Judiciary).
Whereas, there had been no love lost between the Executive arm and the Legislature since the inauguration of the National Assembly on June 9, 2015 with the former reacting rambunctiously to Executive’s onslaughts, it would appear the Judiciary, in its moments of angst, has commendably shown a great deal of equanimity.
Significantly, in the process, the Judiciary has tried to instruct the Executive on the imperative of due process and legality. Judges are not politicians and, therefore, not given to partisan interests or guided by emotions but by facts of the matters. Their highly fecund but sedate dispositions are matters of fact.
In the partisan frenzy that has characterised the interactions between it and the Executive arm, the Judiciary has been self-instructed, so it seems, to take its destiny in its hands in order to preserve its majesty through a reinvention of the tragic wheel to which its reputation has been tied by the imperial Executive arm by delivering judgments in line with facts adumbrated and elucidated before it.
The Executive and its agencies had failed to prove their cases against the judges, whose residences were invaded by the DSS in search of loot. It was not that the Courts protected its own. The prosecution could not prove elements of crime in the monies allegedly discovered.
As it was in those cases, so it has been in a number of recent judicial verdicts against the governing APC in matters pertaining to the question of proper conducts of primary elections and valid nominations of candidates. In the classical cases of Rivers and Zamfara, the court had ruled that APC could not submit names of candidates for all elections in both states.
While Rivers’ case filed by feuding APC’s members had become res judicata at the Supreme Court, Zamfara’s case is still bogged down in legal calisthenics. The Court of Appeal, Sokoto Division, last week upturned the ruling of the court below that gave INEC the nod to include APC on the ballots for the National Assembly, governorship and State House of Assembly elections in Zamfara.
The victories of Zamfara APC’s candidates in the elections have been upended by the appellate court’s verdict. They must look to the Supreme Court for a remedy. But reading through the reported judgment of the appellate court, I have a hunch how it may all end.
Can one, at the cautionary level, vouchsafe a pattern in all these verdicts and the ones to come? If one considers the verdict of the Tribunal that declared PDP’s candidate, Senator Ademola Adeleke, winner of the Osun State governorship election right under the nose of the powers-that-be in Abuja, it would appear that the governing party, cut to the bone, is not in a comfort zone. But to be sure, it is not that the judges are biased against the governing party. I think it is just that the APC has, largely, not been able to prove its cases beyond reasonable doubts and was therefore imperiled by losses. APC must thus be prudent in its defence in the presidential election petition.
Over all, I believe that in the spirit of self-preservation, the Judiciary, as typified by courts across board, is somewhat mentally applying itself and the law in the determination of all the cases before it, not minding whose ox is gored. That is how it should be. It should not matter whether the Executive arm is deploying intimidatory tactics or not.
Justice must issue from the Bench without consideration for party affiliations, tribes and religions. Justice must be conscientiously bolstered to henceforth speak as the Nigerian judge in the appropriation of a fearless voice. This will preserve the majesty of our Judiciary.
▪ Ojeifo, journalist, contributed this piece via firstname.lastname@example.org