Dissecting the Supreme Court in Lawan v Machina (2)
Continued from yesterday
The majority judgment in Machina’s case, particularly given the fact that no reason was adduced for departing from the established precedent, rubs off in a negative way. The learned jurists ought to have loosely interpreted the term “fraudulently” as contained in Machina’s petition since the substance of the case was on the authenticity or otherwise of Lawan’s senatorial candidature.
It is arguable that even if “fraudulently” was omitted in the entire originating process, or ‘unlawfully’ and or ‘wrongfully’ had been used in its stead; the complexion of the case would have still remained materially the same. The crux of the matter was whether Senator Lawan could have lawfully participated in the two primaries in the same election.
The Supreme Court failed to provide the obvious answer to this question in this instance, but chose to dissipate its energy on an innocuous issue. Not only does the extant Electoral Act 2022 frown upon double or multiple nominations of a candidate, but it also criminalises such acts. By its decision, the Supreme Court appears to clothe the illegality of the APC with legality by declaring Lawan the authentic candidate at the expense of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of Machina. Why the court toed the path of technicalities rather than substantial justice remains within its exclusive knowledge. However, the pertinent concern is what justifiable value are technicalities to justice administration?
The public outcry trailing the judgment was expectedly uncomplimentary and even derogatory. Just when Nigerians were trying to forget the seeming illogicality performed in the Imo State Gubernatorial Election Petition, whereby the person who came fourth in the contest was declared the eventual winner, the Apex Court has only succeeded in opening a fresh can of worms in the Machina case. Reacting to this disturbing development, a learned Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) stated as follows: “Nigeria is full of legal absurdities. We must be ready to speak the truth at all times. Justice must not be rooted in legal magic which only those with magical spirits can understand. Let justice be seen to have been done.
Any justice with question marks in the minds of reasonable members of the society even when delivered with the best of legal intention is no justice.”
In the landmark case of Akeredolu V. Abraham, the Supreme Court held that: “Technicality in the administration of justice shuts out Justice. A man denied justice on any ground, much less a technical ground, grudges the administration of justice, it is, therefore, better to have a case heard and determined on merit than to leave the Court with a shield of ‘victory’ obtained on mere technicalities.” Strangely, the self-same court failed to heed its own advice in the (Machina) case under discourse.
Similarly, it is shameful and reprehensible for the ruling APC party to arbitrarily replace duly nominated aspirants with its preferred candidates. While the conduct of the APC in that regard may not be peculiar to the party, it is worth emphasising that any party system that permits such malpractices lacks the moral standi to lead the nation. Political parties should embrace internal democracy, and allow it to flourish, as the first step to seeking to serve the larger society; after all, you cannot give what you don’t have. The Supreme Court ought to have descended heavily on the APC but chose to descend into the arena instead.
Judges, by their oath of office, are mandated to decide cases brought before them judiciously and judicially. They are obligated to exhibit neutrality and fairness when deciding cases. Given the sensitive nature of electoral and political matters, judges should not leave the fate of elected representatives to the vagaries of a power play by political gladiators. Such matters, like other matters, should be determined within the Constitutional threshold of fair fearing. The court should always strive to balance the competing rights of parties because if the principle of fair hearing upon which justice is founded becomes illusory, what use is the judiciary?
With all due respect, the majority decision in APC V. Machina is not a good case law as it is clearly one-sided and devoid of merit in many respects. The judgment is not helpful to counter insinuations in many quarters that superior courts are compromised. In 2020, the Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) in its report entitled: “Nigeria Corruption Index: Report of a pilot survey” ranked the Nigerian judiciary as a corrupt institution. The Report alleges that: “bribe for judgment is one of the most egregious forms of grand corruption as it operates to undermine the very essence of judicial dispute resolution. Follow-up discussions indicated that the cases of outright demand and offer of bribes are mostly linked to election matters.” In 2023, the anti-graft agency specifically classified the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal as a “High Corruption Risk Establishment.”
Now that the country is awash with a fresh barrage of election petitions arising from the 2023 presidential election, with more such complaints expected from last Saturday’s governorship elections, the court is being presented with a golden opportunity to redeem its tainted image, and reaffirm itself as an unbiased umpire ready to bear the responsibility of being the last hope of the common man. The judiciary should rise to the occasion and give the masses the conviction that their Permanent Voter Cards (PVCs) are indeed their power in making decisions on who governs them. The court should be mindful of the fact that undue adherence to technicalities rather than merit is no justice. Additionally, it portends danger for the entire country if the court ever loses its appeal as the last hope of the common man.
Where the average Nigerian loses confidence in the ability of the court to deliver substantial justice, the course readily attractive to him is to resort to self-help. Nigeria must not be allowed to fall into that quandary, as it could precipitate anarchy. Therefore, even though the task is sometimes herculean, litigations should be determined in a manner that justice will be manifestly seen to have been done, in the minds of reasonable members of society.