Two recent conflicting court orders on the crisis in the Peoples Democratic Party have further exposed the systemic rot in the nation’s judiciary. Davidson Iriekpen writes
The judiciary is one of the three arms of government whether at the federal or state level. Its journey is germane vis-a-vis the political and constitutional development of the country. For those who have been following happenings in country in the last 17 years, the judiciary has tremendously helped to shape democracy.
As the third arm of the government, it has clearly played its role in deepening democracy with several landmark decisions. Not only has the country witnessed vibrancy in the judiciary, it has also seen landmark constitutional interventions, especially on electoral matters, which have contributed to deepening democracy. ‘Stolen’ electoral mandates have been restored, just as key constitutional disputes that could have thrown the country into chaos resolved.
As it became famous for its interventions, its role in determining who wins election, which was either hailed by those it favoured, or disparaged by those it did not favour, began to be criticised. People started to query the rationale behind the ‘judicial usurpation of peoples’ power to determine who they want as their leaders.
Infuriated by the development, lawmakers amended the Electoral Act and withdrew the powers of the tribunals to declare winners of elections. Those who felt offended also approached the judiciary for succor. As a result, Justice Okechukwu Okeke (now retired) of the Federal High Court in Lagos nullified Section 140 (2) of the Electoral Act, 2010 which prevents Election Petitions Tribunals from declaring winners of elections.
Section 140 (2) specifically states that: “Where an election tribunal or court nullifies an election on the grounds that the person who obtained the highest votes at the election was not qualified to contest the election, the election tribunal or court shall not declare the person with the second highest votes as elected, but shall order a fresh election.”
Delivering judgment in a suit filed by the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) challenging the legality of the amendment done to the Electoral Act 2010 by the immediate past National Assembly, Justice Okeke said the section was null and void and of no effect whatsoever and inconsistent with the constitutional provision, which gives powers to the courts to make declarative injunctions.
However, it has not only been accolades for the judiciary, the events surrounding the annulment of elections by tribunals opened a pandora box in the sector. It was such that accusations of unethical conduct and corruption among the top echelon of the judiciary deeply eroded public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.
In the developed world, where democracy has really taken firm root, the judiciary is central to effective governance and central element of civil society – the sole adjudicator over the political, social and economic spheres. As the third arm of government, it acts as a check on the executive and the legislature.
But in Nigeria, this statement is fast becoming a literary expression and cliché as the reality is fast becoming a mirage. Due to political and other influences, the judiciary is not living up to public expectation. Its integrity is being questioned because of the poor conduct of some judges.
Currently, Nigerians see the judiciary in two perspectives. While some have commended this all-important third arm of government for some landmark cases that have redirected the country from certain precipice, with some of its conducts, others have wondered it is serving other ends than ensuring that litigants obtain justice.
This impression is not misplaced. From time to time, some office holders within the judiciary either through forceful inducement or unlawful enticement have attempted to entangle the judicial system in the abominable vice of compromising justice.
To most Nigerians, one of the worst things that have befallen the judiciary, like every other thing in the polity, is subjecting it to a lot of politics, which has not only undermined its performance and perception but threatened its integrity, to the extent that its decisions are now subject of doubts.
To a lot of Nigerians, one of the major problems the judiciary has is its snail-speed in dispensing justice. This has led to loss of faith in the judicial system and made a mockery of the system widely perceived as the last hope of the common man.
Unfortunately, these are the categories of people in the society that the third arm of government is supposed to serve because of their vulnerability. This set of the people either have their cases delayed while they wait in limbo or are out-priced. Like a scholar recently put it, “court proceedings have now become cash and carry. Justice now goes to the bidder.”
Observers have argued that the sustenance of democracy and development is largely dependent on building and maintaining solid structures that guarantee the rights of every citizen, ensure speedy dispensation of justice and provide the framework for peaceful co-existence among people irrespective of their socio-political or economic standing.
It is true that there have been isolated cases of bad eggs within the judiciary in terms of corruption, bribery, compromise of cases and others.
Such isolated cases have not only been promptly dealt with by the NJC, they have also succeeded in diminishing or dimming the good work of a vast majority of hardworking judges, who have shown exceptional courage and activist orientation in handing down judgments that have deepened democracy, promoted good governance, protected civil rights and liberties, shielded the rule of law from assault and fought corruption in governance.
Apart from that public disagreement and accusation of infractions, there are many ridiculous decisions taken by the judiciary that infuriated the public.
Interestingly, the judiciary has also embarked on self-cleansing exercise. Trying very hard to redeem its battered image, the NJC had frowned at some of those ridiculous decisions and wielded the big stick in some cases. A few judges have been sanctioned through dismissal, suspension and compulsory retirement.
Beyond funding, one problem the judiciary is currently grappling with is conflicting judgments and orders. The issues became pronounced during the last adjudication on electoral process. At the Court of Appeal level, Nigerians were constantly inundated with conflicting and discordant judgments. So bad was the issue that the Supreme Court had to intervene.
Only last week, the judiciary exhibited part of the frustration and disdain the Nigerian populace has over its conduct, when two Federal High Courts in the country gave two conflicting rulings in the national convention held by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
While a Federal High Court sitting in Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, granted an interim injunction restraining the immediate past National Chairman of the party, Ali Modu Sheriff and Professor Adewale Oladipo, who were removed from office from parading themselves as national officers of the party, another Federal High Court, this time in Lagos, declared as invalid the caretaker committee constituted over the weekend to take over the affairs of the party. The court of concurrent jurisdiction in Lagos presided over by Justice Ibrahim Buba sacked the seven-man interim committee led by Makarfi.
To many observers, the orders by the two courts of concurrent powers have again brought to the fore the level of decadence in the country’s judiciary, and portrays it as a confused institution, where orders and judgments can be procured by the highest bidders.
While worldwide people take their disputes to the courts for resolution and justice, this is not usually the case in Nigeria as cases get complicated in some instances, making many Nigerians wonder when the country would ever get things right.
The frustration, to many Nigerians, is accentuated by the fact that since the enthronement of democracy in 1999, the executive and legislative arms government have not left much to be desired but the judiciary which prides itself as the hope of the common man is intermittently wobbling.
Too often, litigants, out of desperation have had cause to play on the integrity of the judiciary by out-smarting it and how the all-important arm of government has allowed itself to be deceived by them when indeed members of the bench, who adjudicate on these cases, live in the same society with these litigants baffles many others. At the end of the day, it is the entire institution that is brought to disrepute.