Of Technicality, Justice And The Supreme Court


Justice is delivered when the interest of the society prevails, argues Rilwan Balogun

It was Walter Savage Landor, an English writer and poet who philosophized many years back that when law becomes a science and a system, it ceases to be justice. Like never before, the Supreme Court’s decisions, particularly on election matters, have left many political observers confounded and further strengthened the contagious doubt and aspersion cast in the name of the judiciary. The question that pervades my reasoning since the recent decisions of the apex court is that, are Nigerian laws basically meant to attain justice in all ramifications or laws are merely applied, rather sheepishly, for sake of strict adherence to the letters of law? Indeed, my preoccupation on these apex court decisions has been borne simply of the far greater complexity in the nexus between law and justice which philosophers had given persuasive thoughts on the inseparability of the duo concepts.

In Salawu Ajide v Kadiri Kelani (1985) 1 NWLR 248 AT 269, Oputa J.S.C, on the need for truth to prevail in order to ensure justice is done poignantly cautioned that “justice is much more than a game of hide and seek. It is an attempt to discover the truth, on human imperfections, notwithstanding. Justice will never decree anything in favour of so slippery a customer as the present defendant/appellant” on this note, our courts have admitted that justice and truth are on the same ticket and that in doing justice the courts and all ministers in her temple, that is lawyers and all other stakeholders, must strive at discovering the truth regardless of legal technicalities”.

No doubt, the recent verdicts by the apex court in Nigeria have thrown more confusion rather than douse the tension of many Nigerians. Perhaps, these judgments have exhumed more complex questions in lieu of solving the convoluted issues, as regard the rights and the propriety of an electoral process, the basis of which forms the reasons why aggrieved parties in the electioneering processes approach the courts. The reason why many have been so concerned about the Supreme Court’s judgments is that the court’s decision is seen as one subjugating their will to that of an umpire, which to the faintest, is never participant in the state’s election process, thus, making the whole exercise calling for the democratic principle of electing their leaders a mere formality or charade.

The prevalent legal ideology of judges in line with Austinian Positivist theory is undoubtedly what is observed, most often, by the Nigerian judges. One may ponder in dismay and trance, thus, ask the fundamental question of whether the judiciary is a dummy arbiter, meant merely to reel out what is written in the legislative codification? Or they are really saddled with the sacred responsibility of giving professional interpretations to the letters of laws, that is, by juxtaposing the facts in factual sense with the letters of laws, solely, for the attainment of justice?

Professor Akin Oyebode aptly described the attitude of the Nigerian judges when he asserted that “when judges are confronted with a choice between applying law delegelata and lawdelegeferenda, the majority of the judges would opt for the former in accordance with the strict constructionist legal ideology which they have imbibed. There are different sets of theories that medieval philosophers have used to explain what law is, though, the Nigerian courts cannot appear obsolete, without purposeful attempt to juxtapose and fine-tune a workable rapprochement between facts and laws, with a view to attaining justice.

Prior to the Thursday, 13th February’s supreme court’s decision on Bayelsa State’s gubernatorial tussle, the decisions of the Nigerian apex court on election matters have always been subject of torrent of criticisms leaving the populace in a state of utter quagmire. For example, in May 2019, the Supreme Court’s judgment on Zamfara’s APC primaries tussle cannot be forgotten in a jiffy, where in its judgment, the apex court ruled that noncompliance with INEC guidelines and directives on the date for the submission of candidates, vitiated the eligibility of the political party, APC, to participate in the elections. Therefore, it would be deemed, legally, that the party did not field any candidate or partake in all the elections that took place in the state, hence, the mindboggling judgment which robbed the party and the people of the state the real franchise to exercise the key tenet of democracy, which calls for fair representation of all and by the respect for the majority’s will. Of course the APC stalwarts perceived this as decision taken too far and a sheer over-flexing of muscle by the judiciary in order to suppress the will of the majority in Zamfara State.

What appears highly intriguing is the Supreme Court’s judgment on January 14, where in its revered wisdom saw the need to accept in evidence the votes from 388 polling units, which had earlier been wrongly rejected by INEC in the March 28 gubernatorial election in Imo State. In its judgment, the Supreme Court in its wisdom, consequently allotted almost all the rejected votes in the 388 polling units to the APC candidate, Senator Hope Uzodinma. That decision, which many Nigerians are still tongue lashing and still trying to grapple with the ratio behind the “confusing” judicial activism, clearly truncated the dream of the PDP and its candidate, Hon Emeka Ihedioha’s reign in Imo State.

Just like a football match, where penalty shoots are awarded by a perceived skewed referee to the two sides of the game, the apex court, in another blockbuster, dealt a deadly blow to the APC, where it ruled that the infraction by an “appendage” to its major candidate, which touches on qualification, clearly robbed the candidate of the APC, who had been declared governor-elect and indeed few hours to his inauguration, the bite of the hysteria of ruling the oil reach state, Bayelsa State.

Based on these three scenarios, the knotty question that has been racking the brains of Nigerians, is that, what is the stance of the Supreme Court when it comes to making a choice between the application of legal technicalities, which is a concept that overrides the literal interpretation of the letters of the law on one hand and the sheepish adherence to the letters of the law on the other hand? The former demands a judicial exercise and what perhaps, may be technically called judicial activism. Of course, our courts have had the reasons to take to this in some cases years back. For example, during the screening process of Hon. Justice Ibrahim Tanko as the 14 substantive Chief Justice of Nigeria, his lordship admitted that there are indeed technicalities in law by virtue of its inheritance from English law. While the latter on the other hand does not admit the discretion of the interpreter, rather he is expected to comply strictly with the letters of the law without room for “special” cases or exigencies.

The honourable CJN further submitted that technicality in law is something that has to do with perception of the way you think you will be able to achieve the goals of what you want to achieve. On the other hand, where the judges follow, without any judicial activism by way of philosophizing that is doing what will best serve the interest of justice. Justice does not only apply to the parties involved in the case, but the society, whose interest, at large, is at stake. In the judgment given in Bayelsa case, what has been done is precariously hazardous, an interpretation of the law which definitely silhouetted the ultimate aim of law that is, the globally recognized, which is justice. The fact is, whether the APC candidate in Bayelsa State, actually was voted for and wanted by the majority of the Bayelsans is a statement of both fact and law.
––Balogun, a legal practitioner, wrote in from Lagos via rilwanbalogun60@yahoo.com

Our courts have admitted that justice and truth are on the same ticket and that in doing justice the courts and all ministers in her temple, that is lawyers and all other stakeholders, must strive at discovering the truth regardless of legal technicalities