The Chief Justice and election tribunals
NOTWITHSTANDING the postponement of the elections, the recent barrage of lawsuits against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) may well be a tell-tale sign of what befalls the judiciary in the months ahead. The overload of litigations, the pressure on election tribunals, and the moral and ethical implications of illicit liaisons between tribunal heads and litigants are possible expectations, with dire consequences for Nigeria’s political development.
This is why the sermonic admonition of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, the other day, to judicial officers that they must never again be used to truncate the nation’s democracy, remains a fitting reminder of the sacredness of the judiciary’s task to democratic culture.
With sentences that smack of threatening imperatives, Justice Mohammed touched raw spots and bruised some egos of these respected ministers of the temple of justice as he swore in, in Abuja the 242 judges selected as chairmen and members of the 2015 Election Petition Tribunal.
As if his mission must be accomplished by force, Mohammed’s words were biting: “You must ensure that all petitions must be founded upon grounds which are contained in Section 138 of the Electoral Act and not on extraneous provisions of law as the tribunal is not a court of vain inquisition.” “All your considerations must be founded in law only…” “Let me use this opportunity to sound a note of warning to all judicial officers…” “We must never again be used as tools to truncate our nation’s democracy…” “You must be dispensers of justice regardless of fear or favour, position or standing…We must uphold the stability of this democracy…”
These courageous words, with their unhidden insolence directed at a flagging arm of the government that has lately been complicit in some of the most odious political practices in the country, reflect a very salutary gesture. In a country where the ignoble activities of prevalent anti-democratic elements are laws, where judicial officers cringe at the promptings of politicians and the honour, nobility and character of judges are exchanged for undue privileges and filthy lucre, Justice Mohammed’s brash directive is a confidence booster. By his body language, the CJN lives no one in doubt that he is going to toe the hardline of zero-tolerance to corruption like his predecessor, Justice Maryam Aloma-Mukhtar.
After more than a decade and half in a new democratic regime, the image and reputation of the judiciary, in recent times, have gravitated to a level of ignominy. Like the ordinary civil courts, where, as former CJN Mukhtar rightly observed, corrupt judges turn the dispensation of justice into a commodity to be sold to the highest bidder, tribunal judges have gotten undue favours and privileges, while some have become scandalously wealthy from the mess they were supposed to clear. With the desperation of politicians this time around and the outplaying electoral dynamics, it is likely that opportunities for the instrumentation of the judiciary abound.
One of the revelations that may confront the tribunal judges is the realisation that, more often than not, politicians are not democrats. Besides a very few good aspirants, only self-seeking contractors, questionable elements, untested sinecurists and characters lacking in demonstrable leadership pedigree are ones that populate the rank of those vying to steer the affairs of state. It should be borne in mind that an incongruous mix of these strange bedfellows is the reason things are topsy-turvy in the polity.
Chairpersons and members of electoral tribunals are not men from outer space; they are human beings with aspirations and desires, and by that fact susceptible to temptations from the moral countercurrents, which elections amply provide. As such, it would be to the personal uplift of their integrity and to the progress of the nation if they refrain from taking delight in the mess that goes on during election.
As one respected lawyer once remarked, it is the judiciary that decides the winners of the elections. Lawyers, he counseled, capitalise on the loopholes and internal contradictions observed in INEC’s shortcomings to re-instate people in positions. If this is the case, then the onus lies on INEC to perform its duties properly, so that this abuse would not occur. INEC must put its house in order and commit itself to ensuring that Nigeria conducts a free, fair and peaceful election in order to reduce litigation. In the same vein, it would be to the credit of an orderly society if all the parties – political groups, voters, the general public – commit themselves to having a free and fair election.
It is for this reason that the intervention of the CJN is germane. He should watch out for people sitting in the tribunals. Moreover, the tribunals sitting should be short and straight to the issue. Tortuous foot-dragging and unnecessary elongation through frequent adjournments should be discouraged. A time-frame for the tribunal sittings, which should end before May 29, must be enforced so as not to distract the new government.
Having read the riot act, the CJN’s barking must also be matched with a punching power. He should assure Nigerians that he would take particular interest in the way the tribunals run their activities, by monitoring the judges. Where a tribunal judge or member has been found to have compromised, such a member should not only be prosecuted, but also be made to serve his or her terms of conviction if found guilty.