The controversy rocking the Supreme Court over the selection of the justices to hear the pending appeal challenging results of the last presidential election, will no doubts, test how independent the judiciary is under Justice Tanko Muhammad. Davidson Iriekpen writes
The highest court in the country, the Supreme Court, was last week forced to join issues with the Coalition of United Political Parties (CUPP) for accusing it of trying to subvert the convention of selecting the most senior justices of the court to hear and determine the appeal, arising from the last presidential election.
CUPP at a press conference held in Abuja, had alleged that the All Progressives Congress (APC)-led federal government has been mounting undue pressure on the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, to accept a list of some persons allegedly selected to be members of the presidential election petition appeal tribunal.
Its spokesman, Ikenga Imo Ugochinyere, said the coalition would reject any such move to handpick justices to sit on Atiku Abubakar’s appeal.
Atiku was the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) during the last election in which the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declared President Muhammadu Buhari the winner. The former vice-president has approached the Supreme Court to appeal the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which dismissed his petition against the declaration of Buhari as winner of the election.
But the coalition of over 45 opposition political parties said it would not have confidence in a handpicked panel of justices to hear Atiku’s appeal in violation of the seniority tradition except it follows the laid down precedence.
“We have it on good authority that the APC-led federal government has been mounting undue pressure on the CJN and indeed the entire court to accept a handpicked panel and jettison the age-long tradition of the court of selecting the most senior justices of the Supreme Court to sit on the panel.
“The disquiet and bad blood caused by the APC in the Supreme Court now is a clear desecration of the highest temple of justice in the land. The opposition and most Nigerians will not accept a handpicked panel, neither will the pronouncement of such panel command the requite respect and confidence of the people of Nigeria and we in the opposition.
“The Supreme Court is for the people, the last hope of the judiciary. The actions of the Supreme Court must inspire national confidence and deliver not just judgment but justice, and that path to justice is not only about the law, but about the ordinary man believing that justice has been done. The Supreme Court is supreme and its words must be for the protection of the society and the people and the law,” the group said.
Incidentally, this is not the first time the CUPP would make the allegation. Last month, it first revealed that the federal government was hatching plans not only to intimidate but also blackmail justices of the apex court with a view to instilling fear in them ahead of Atiku’s appeal.
The group said it was alarmed by the federal government’s onslaught against judges across the country in form of a request from the Nigerian Financial Intelligence Unit (NFIU) that all banks make details of accounts of all justices of the Supreme Court available to it.
The group added that the request by the NFIU came simultaneously with another request from one of the security agency to all mobile telecommunication companies to furnish them with the phone log of all the Justices of the Supreme Court and other listed Nigerians from August 1, 2018, till September 10, 2019.
Trouble started last June, when under the pretext of meeting the constitutional requirements of 21 justices on the bench of the Supreme Court, President Muhammadu Buhari directed the CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, to appoint new justices for the court.
First to query the directive was an advocacy group, Access to Justice (A2Justice), which described it as worrisome. The Convener of the group, Joseph Otteh, in a statement, said the process, which saw the CJN accepting the request by asking Supreme Court Justices to nominate “suitable candidates for consideration for appointment as justices of the Supreme Court” was a mockery of the judiciary.
It said: “The Supreme Court has not had a full bench of 21 Justices since the transition to civil rule in 1999 in spite of calls for it to do so. Why does it have to be a presidential ‘request’ that should trigger the judiciary into filling longstanding vacancies at the Supreme Court? There are notable concerns flowing from the judiciary’s response to the presidency’s request.
“First, the judiciary gives the impression, invariably, that it has no mind of its own, and cannot control its own business or judge what is in its own best interest. Nigeria’s judicial branch is created as an independent arm of government, with powers and responsibility over the affairs of the judiciary. Does the judiciary interfere with appointments made by other arms of government?”
Even though many Nigerians did not read any negative meaning to the president’s directive then, it was not until Atiku headed to the Supreme Court with his appeal that it was clear on them that it was actually meant to achieve a purpose.
Soon after, it was alleged that due to the lack confidence on the existing justices of the court by APC-led federal government, the fresh justices would be appointed to hear the appeal by Atiku against the election of President Buhari as against the tradition of empanelling the old justices to hear appeals in that magnitude.
But the Supreme Court, usually known for its conservative and taciturn nature, would be so rattled to the extent of joining issues with an aggrieved group, which suspected a foul play surprised many Nigerians.
The court, in a statement by its spokesman, Mr. Festus Akande, said CUPP’s serial attacks on it over Atiku’s appeal would not deter it from performing its arbitration function without fear or favour. It stated that the apex court and by extension, the judiciary, is an independent arm of government that can never be intimidated or dictated to by anybody.
The court said being an independent body peopled by diligent minds, it remains focused on its goal of always ensuring justice irrespective of the individuals behind any case.
The reaction of the court has opened a floodgate of attacks on it. First, a pro-democracy and civil rights advocacy group, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), wondered why the court would breach its code of conduct by engaging in a media war with a legitimate group of aggrieved political opposition political parties, who under the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression voiced its opinion on suspected foul play by the court.
The rights group through its National Coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, said the CJN cannot intimidate, harass or threaten citizens of Nigeria in a constitutional democracy for exercising their constitutional rights just as it said the CJN could have exercised the highest circumspection by acknowledging that clear conscience fears no accusations instead of blowing hot in a seemingly authoritarian mode against a group of Nigerians threatening to prosecute them as if he is allowed by law to be the prosecutor and the judge in his own case.
“The office of the CJN must steer clear of any media showmanship that could graphically paint the temple of justice of being controlled by persons with certain political affiliations or persons, who feel that they are above constructive criticisms, which are clearly guaranteed by numerous provisions of the chapter four of the 1999 Constitution and primarily by section 39(1), which states that Nigerian citizens are entitled to freedom of expression including freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart ideas and information without interference.”
The controversy the issue has raised has made the PDP caucus in the House of Representatives to join the fray. The caucus in a statement has suggested that Justices Ibrahim Tanko, Rhodes-Vivour, Mary Odili, Sylvester Ngwata, Olukayode Ariwoola, Musa Mohammed and Kumai Akaahs be appointed to hear and determine the appeal.
The caucus backed by the PDP leadership accused the leadership of the Supreme Court of trying to subvert the convention of selecting the most senior justices of the Supreme Court to hear and determine the appeal. They said that the Supreme Court and the CJN must stick to set precedent and resist the pressure being brought to bear on him to appoint justices, who are likely to favour the ruling APC and President Buhari in deciding the appeal.
In a statement signed by Hon. Kingsley Chinda (PDP Caucus Leader), Hon. Chukwuma Onyema (deputy leader), Hon. Umar Barde (Caucus Whip) and Hon. Muraina Ajibola (deputy caucus whip), the PDP caucus said the Chief Justices of Nigeria since 1979, has set the precedent of appointing the most senior Justices to hear the presidential election appeal.
They believe that the first seven senior justices should be appointed to hear the appeal and listed them to be Justices Muhammad, Justice Rhodes Vivour, Justice Mary Odili, Justice Syvester Ngwata, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, Justice Musa Mohammed and Justice Kumai Akaahs.
The statement read: “The hearing of the appeal on the decision of the Presidential Election Petition filed by Alhaji Atiku Abubakar and our great party, the PDP, begins a few weeks at the Supreme Court. The practice of selecting Justices to hear the appeal is expected to precede the hearing, going by age-long convention.
“What isn’t conventional is the present attempt to influence Justice Muhammad, going by reports in the media, to subvert the age-long and time-tested practice, precedent and convention of selecting the most senior Justices of the Supreme Court to hear the presidential election appeal.
“Chief Justices of Nigeria through time have never in the selection of the Supreme Court’s Election Petition Appeal Panel surrendered to the phoney dictates of the ruling parties. We are proud to state here that never in our great party’s time in power, did it or its personages, dictate selection of panel members to Chief Justices; Never.
“In 2008 when President Buhari, defeated by late President Umaru Yar’Adua, appealed the decision of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, the then Chief Justice, Legbo Kutigi, empaneled Justices Katsina-Alu, Aloma Mukhtar, Dahiru Musdapha, Walter Onnoghen, George Oguntade and Niki Tobi to hear the appeal that year.
“He was never dictated to, nor was any attempt made by our great party to influence CJN Justice Legbo Kutigi, who stuck to a conventional practice that consistently secured the seal of approval of past Chief Justices: CJN Fatai Williams, 1979; CJN George Sowewimo, 1983; and CJN Muhammad Uwais, 2003.
“CJN Katsina-Alu also followed CJN Kutigi’s steps in 2011 and kept to the age-long conventional practice. If there is any arm of government that regards precedents and practices as almost sacrosanct, it is the judiciary. Nigerian judiciary cannot reverse that internationally accepted practice of stare decisis just to please APC government and serve the interest of a select individuals or group.”