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Nigeria needs constitutional court for election cases, says Adejumo

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AdejumoWhen one-time Minister of Niger Delta, Chief Godsday Orubebe, protested last week at the presidential and National Assembly election collation centre, in Abuja, he certainly did not get the kind of response he anticipated. Instead, the Chairman of National Independent Electoral Commission, Professor Attairu Jega, gently explained to him that any issue arising from the handling of the election should be directed to the Election Petition Tribunal.  No doubt, such Tribunals would soon begin to host politicians as allegations of irregularities are growing and will even grow bigger in the days to come after governorship and state houses of assembly elections would have been over. In this interview by EMMANUEL BADEJO AND YETUNDE AYOBAMI OJO, with the President, National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN), Justice Babatunde Adejumo, shortly after a court valedictory session for retiring Justice Oluwaseun Shogbola, he spoke on some national issues, among them is that Nigeria needs a constitutional court to try and determine election cases.

IN few days from now, several petitions would be coming from the 2015 elections.  Do you think 180 days is enough for election tribunals to complete all matters before it? It is enough! If the tribunals can curtail much of interlocutory applications, 180 days is enough.

I will counsel those sitting in our tribunals to be in charge and avoid unnecessary interlocutory applications. If for instance, an applicant has issues, which he does not agree with, all of such could be taken together upon appeal. In my view, the psychology and philosophy behind that is justifiable.

A person will be elected whether rightly or fraudulently. If through the back door and the court nullifies such election, but this political office holder has stayed in the office for two years, collected and spent public funds for that long, taken decisions, perhaps, signed laws within that 24 months, some of those decisions or actions cannot be reversed.

In such scenario, it is double jeopardy, which would ultimately create problem for the whole country, state or local government. Besides, I think the question to ask is whether we have enough judges to handle election tribunal cases? I don’t think so. Judges drafted to man our election tribunal are from the high or industrial courts.

Once they are saddled with election cases, their regular courts suffer and by implication, the course of justice is further delayed, sometimes denied. Some of the cases being handled by those judges are put on hold temporarily only to be reawakened after he/she might have concluded all election matters before his/her tribunal.

This is one of the reasons I say that there should be a constitutional court, which would be created to handle election matters. If that is created, I believe the usual challenge election period poses at conventional courts would be minimal, if not totally eliminated.  This is obtainable in South African, Togo and some other countries.

The duty of constitutional court is to make sure the regular courts are not saddled with election matters.

In your experience, one of the challenges in the bench and bar is the issue of corruption, how have you been contending with this in NICN Really, corruption is big challenge, but till date I am glad to say that there has not been any reported case of corruption against any judge in NICN.

However, from my experience as member of council of NJC, let me say that about 80 percent of allegations of corruption against judges are unfounded. Since the council started, we have been able to discipline some judges not on the grounds of corruption but other areas like ineptitude and related offences.

We have observed that some of the complainants make frivolous request to discipline judges on issues they can seek redress in the Court of Appeal. So the council have been able to identify some of these cases should not come here. Go on appeal to challenge the decision of that judge and whatever the court of appeal says, so be it.

Some complain because they do not like the face of a judge and as such they do not want such judge to handle their case. Instead of them to prosecute their cases, they sometimes choose to rush to NJC with all sorts of petitions. This is not good for the judiciary and the country at large.

So many cases are before the Supreme Court for a long time.  How in your opinion do you think the Supreme Court can address this backlog? So many things can to be done.

For example, they are taking 2006, 2007 cases now. It means that any matter file now will have to stay for long before it gets to its turn. We can’t blame their lordships for that.

This is one of the things the law that sets up NICN is trying to address by foreclosing some decisions from the court get to the Supreme Court to reduce the workload.  That is why the law says it must end here except on fundamental rights. And interlocutory applications should not be allowed to go to Supreme Court.

It should end at the Court of Appeal. That would reduce the workload. Cases that qualify to go to Supreme Court must be with the leave of the Supreme Court. Not every matter should go to Supreme Court.

If you want to appeal decision of the Court of Appeal, you apply for leave, in their lordships’ wisdom, if they think there are tri-able cases, then they will allow you to come before it.

But if they believe you are just coming to waste time, they refuse you and that is the end. If they can introduce leave, and make sure there is no interlocutory matter dragged to the Supreme Court, these will reduce the workload. For the Supreme Court to be effective in discharge of the appeal, number of cases that go there must reduce.

How do you intend to expand the frontiers of the National Industrial Court of Nigeria (NICN)? We thank God for thus far He has helped us. Indeed, there are heights to attain. We are presently at 24 states, but we still hope to have our divisions throughout the Federation. We want to have more judges appointed within the next one and half years.

Our headquarters’ project in Abuja is about 70 percent completion. We hope to complete it and develop the jurisprudence of the court in the next few years. Very soon, we will be opening our Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre (ADR).

We have the instruments and the rules already on ground, but we still need to launch this centre, which will further reduce workload of cases in our court. ADR is the trend all over the world now, and we at the industrial court are not relenting to ensure this is done and we are hopeful that with time, we will complete the process.

Has the expansion of the court and appointment of more judges on its bench translate to less challenges? Not at all! The more we strive to expand, the more the challenges. This court has been for 25 years before I was appointed but little progress was made, and to pilot the court to where it is today isn’t rosy at all. We weathered the storm, and have gone through all sought of stages. It is quite stressful and painful.

I have been to all the states of the federation either by road or air to either search for how we can develop the court or get landed property for the court.

When I took over, the court had only 129 staffers, with just five graduates, but today we have over 1,500 staffers, with over 300 graduates.

Only two lawyers were members of staff some years ago, but now, about 50 lawyers are in our employment. Few years ago, when I was appointed, only three-panel of judges were on the court’s bench, but now, there are 19 judges. Before, this court was located on plot of land at Oju Olobun, at Victoria Island, but within two years I took over, this world standard new court complex was built.

Now, we have our court across the country, as against only two divisions some years back. In terms of jurisprudence, when I came there was no enabling Act. This court was formally established under the Trade Dispute Act, which I think was not good enough.  Today, we have the National Industrial Court Act, 2006.

This Act makes NICN a court of superior record. In 2007, we also came up with the rules of court. In 2010, we were able to come out with the amendment of the constitution, third alteration. We shall soon launch the instrument and rules for the ADR. With all of these, I think the court has developed, though it has not been easy. Some agitate that NICN should not be a final and decider of its own case.

How is that its judgment, apart from those that bother on fundamental rights of the litigants are not appealable? The law does not say National Industrial Court of Nigeria shall be a final habitat. Section 243 of the Constitution was amended, that is appellate jurisdiction of Court of Appeal, was amended by adding subsection 2, 3 and 4.  Subsection 3 says appeal from National Industrial Court of Nigeria shall lie by Act of the National Assembly.

But the law specifically says that on fundamental right, subsection 2,5,4, 6 or criminal matter, you are free to go on appeal.

If that is what the law says, then, it is the duty of agitators to approach the National Assembly for a review. Now you don’t need to seek for an amendment of the Constitution, as the law has given that power to the National Assembly to come out with an Act. Prior to the new law, the third alteration, there were two cases. Amadi v. NNPC.

It went from the High Court to Supreme Court for 18 years before it was sent back to High Court for trial on grounds of jurisdiction.

There is another case of Ozuegbo v. CBN.  It went from the High Court to Supreme Court for 24 years before the Supreme Court sent it back to National Industrial Court to start afresh.  Can you imagine the injustices somebody must have suffered for 13 years before his case is retried? In other to stop that, in their own wisdom, the legislators believe there should be no absolute appeal at the Court of Appeal.

That is why they gave the Court of Appeal limited appellate jurisdiction unlike the High Court. Issue of labour or employment is an economy matters, and therefore, allow such matter to drag for too long in the courts, is dangerous for the nation’s survival.

In this court, we consider consequential effect of any law and the interpretation on the larger society. Nigeria economy is what labour deals with either as individual or corporate.

With the retirement of Justice Oluwaseun Shogbola, the number of judges in your court has declined from 20 to 19, what does this portend for your court? I miss her absence in many respects. One, her retirement will affect our overloaded work on our bench. All the pending cases in her court would have to be resigned to other judges and thereby increasing the dockets of these judges.

As a colleague, we have always been together, but she cannot appear again in any of our sittings only one or two things we can invite her to get her opinion or suggestion. On another breathe, it is another thing to look for somebody to fill the vacuum. The workload is already heavy on everybody, now somebody has retired and that means more work for us.

Obviously, the court needs more hands. QUOTE There should be a constitutional court, which would be created to handle election matters. If that is created, I believe the usual challenge election period poses at conventional courts would be minimal, if not totally eliminated\


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