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How judiciary has shaped democracy in Nigeria

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As the nation awaits the outcome of the presidential election, the judiciary has been called to duty again and may likely step in after INEC declares a winner. Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court, Lagos few days ago said the use of soldiers in an election is undemocratic. The judge as a result granted an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Federal Government and the service chiefs from deploying soldiers for the general elections without the approval of National Assembly.

Nigerian judiciary, in the last 16 years, 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.

Even though some of those decisions could be contested, there is no doubt that they have made contributions to the development of democracy one way or the other, depending on the assesor.

Wielding its enormous powers, the judiciary sou moto, installed the governor of River State, Chibuike Amaechi. There was no such precedent. The Supreme Court sacked governor Celestine Omehia and held that Amaechi was the lawfully nominated candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). This singular action helped to restore hope to those who felt that they were robbed off their mandates. It helped to restrain them and their supporters from self-help.

Within the same period, Senator Ifeanyi Ararume won the PDP primaries in 2007 to become governorship candidate in Imo State. The party then, superintended over by President Olusegun Obasanjo, who also denied Amaechi the ticket on the ground that his emergence was ‘proper’ chose to run Charles Ugwu in his place. Ararume protested this decision and approched the courts. Finally, the courts adjudicated and he secured a Supreme Court ruling in his favor following the precedent recorded in Amaechi’s case. The party expelled him and chose not to field a candidate, leaving the field open for Ikedi Ohakim of the Progressive Peoples Alliance (PPA) to emerge as governor.

With the courts, having stamped their foot on the ground in respect of candidate nomination disputes, went further to make remarkable pronouncements on those already declared winners by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) through the election petition Tribunals.

Consequently, the Edo State Governorship Election Tribunal in 2008 upturned the election of Professor Oserheimen Osunbor as winner of the April gubernatorial election in the state and directed the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to “withdraw the Certificate of Return issued to Osunbor.” It also ordered that the Certficate of Return be issued Comrade Adams Aliu Oshiomhole as Governor of Edo State, having scored a quarter of total votes cast in 12 of the 18 local governmet areas of the state.

Dissatisfied, Osunbor appealed the decision. But the Court of Appeal sitting in Benin, endorsed the decision of the Tribunal by declaring Oshiomhole duly elected governor of Edo State.

In the judgment, Justice Umaru Farouk Abdullahi president of the Appeal Court held that the Action Congress (AC) candidate scored highest vote, in the April 14, 2007 governorship poll in Edo State. The court, as a result, dismissed the appeal filed by Osunbor. Prior to that, the election of two PDP governors in Anambra state had been upturned and Peter Obi sworn in. The elections were that of Dr. Chris Uba and Senator Andy Uba.

Other anullment of gubernatorial elections in Ekiti and Osun States as well as ‘arrest of judgment’in Sokoto State followed later. Interstingly, those decisions, which were mainly against the ruling PDP, were enforced as soon as the courts declare. There were also anullment of election into the parliament at either the federal or state levels.

As the judiciary 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 disfavoured 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.

Infuraited 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 Petition Tribunals from declaring winners of elections.

Section 140 (2) specifically states that: “Where an election tribunal or court nullifies an election on the ground 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 sorrounding the anullment of elections by Election 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. The then Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu and the former President of the Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami laid accusations and counter-accusations against each other, and divided the National Judicial Council (NJC), which initially indicted Salami, urged him to apologise and later cleared him.

It is true that there have been isolated cases of bad eggs within the Judiciary, in terms of corruption, bribe taking, compromise of cases and others, but it is a fact that in every 12, there must be a Judas Iscariot. Such isolated cases have not only been promptly dealt with by the NJC, they have also not 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 were riduculous decisions taken by the judiciary that infuriated the public. One of them was the acquittal of former governor of Delta State, James Ibori, who was later convicted by a Crown Court in London over the same allegations.

Interestingly, the judiciary has also embarked on self-cleansing exercise. Trying very hard to redeem its battered image, the NJC had frownd at some of those ridiculous decisions and wielded the big stick in some cases. One of those affected were Justice Samuel Wilson Egbo-Egbo, over his role in Anambra governorship saga and granting of ex-parte applications.

Also, Justice Mohammed Talba of the FCT Judiciary was suspended by the NJC for one year without pay. His offence was that he sentenced a convict, John Yesufu accused of stealing pension fund to the tune of N32b to two years imprisonment or a fine of N750,000. Justice Talba’s suspension followed the unprecedented public outcry that greeted this conviction. The public outcry was consequent upon the fact that many people saw the sentence as being too light for a man who stole such a staggering sum of money.

Justice Gladys Olotu was compulsorily retired by the NJC too. This Judge’s alleged offence was said to be assumption of jurisdiction in a post judgment matter invloving garnishee proceedings. Justice U. A. Inyang of High Court of Justice of FCT, Abuja also had similar fate as he was found guilty of judicial misconduct and asked to vacate his office.

As the nation awaits the outcome of the presidential election, the judiciary has been called to duty again and may likely step in after INEC declares a winner. Justice Ibrahim Buba of the Federal High Court, Lagos few days ago said the use of soldiers in an election is undemocratic. The judge as a result granted an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Federal Government and the service chiefs from deploying soldiers for the general elections without the approval of National Assembly.

Delivering judgment in a suit filed by House of Representatives member, Femi Gbajabiamila, he said any election which is militarised through deployment of soldiers where there is no insurrection is “anti-democratic” and not in consonance with constitutional democracy and civil rule, adding that such can only be done through the approval of the national assembly.

But the question is: what happens if the military is deployed and a candidate loses the election? Will such election be annulled on the account of that? Some have also argued that the military is not involved in the polling booths but man strategic locations and roads in order to forestall breakdown of law and order. In any case, the authenticity of Buba’s decision would be decided by the appellate courts, when its view is sought.

There is no doubt that the judiciary has tremendously helped to deepen democracy in Nigeria in the last 16 years, despite its low points and is poised to do even more.



1 Comment
  • Casio Agbougwu

    This peaple sh, not turn our nation upp side dound