Nigeria on the rise (3)
THE assurance by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, that the judiciary ‘will not be swayed or distracted from the course of justice in any election matter that is brought before the justice system’, could not have come at a better time than now.
Given the rancorous, indecorous campaigns that preceded the presidential election, which, mercifully, ended peacefully, it is left for the judiciary to remain a real Temple of Justice.
Beyond the particular victory of one candidate and his party, Nigeria won in an election in which its people, for the higher sake of their country, simply voted to move on.
But of course, there is much work to do to consolidate on this single achievement. The governorship and other elections are due in two days. There will be winners and losers. Those dissatisfied with the outcome will recourse to the judiciary for redress.
And this is where the integrity of the judicial arm in general, and specifically the personal integrity of members of the election tribunals, will be tested.
The CJN has, rightly, issued very quickly and firmly a warning that ‘under my leadership, the Judiciary remains resolute and committed to its constitutional duty during this election period’.
It is well said to political adventurists and jobbers, who, in collaboration with their lawyers, may seek to dispute either election results that are settled beyond any reasonable doubt, or outcomes that though disputable, may sacrifice the larger interests of society (including peace, stability and cohesion) on the altar of the blind and selfish ambition of a few individuals.
In anticipation of such moves, the CJN has served notice to his officers that ‘you are primarily responsible for the preservation of our nation’s democracy [and you must not] allow any party or politician to use the courts to truncate [it].”
The point to emphasise to all contestants in these elections is that if indeed service to the community is their driving motive, everyone must do only whatsoever (excluding bitter, unnecessary and wasteful long – drawn litigation) that serves the best interest of that community.
Though all these do not preclude the constitutional right of dissatisfied persons to recourse to the due process of law. That much ‘judicialism’ grants and indeed it is the purpose of establishing the election tribunals.
As per Section 6 of the extant constitution, and on election matters, Section 285 holds that the judiciary, as the interpreter of legality and the arbiter of the rule of law, is empowered to and plays a central and critical role in governance.
The judiciary is constitutionally charged to ensure that the affairs of state are conducted through due process, with the rule of law and ‘devoid of arbitrariness and very wide latitude of discretion’.
In sum then, in a democratic system of government, the integrity of the courts is key to the civilised ventilation of grievances, the sustenance of constitutionally guaranteed rights, the norms and values of democracy, and ultimately the ordered conduct of affairs.
Against this backdrop, the integrity of the judicial arm of government is, far and above any other, the bastion against illegality in any and every guise, including even the abuse of judicial process that desperate politicians tend to exploit. In general, the judiciary in Nigeria, may have under the circumstances, fared reasonably well in the dispensing of justice.
But that cannot be confidently said of the less than impressive performance of election tribunals. Because of the high stakes (money and power) attached to political offices, politicians go to despicable length to ‘win’ if not through the ballot box, then in the courts. And the courts have in several cases become victims of politicians’ desperation for power regardless of the long-term consequences for themselves, the judicial system, and the nation.
In the not too distant past, the apex court, in the case of Awolowo v. Shagari and FEDECO, decided in its wisdom on ‘substantial compliance,’ but in a curious caveat, stated that the judgement be not taken as a precedent that may guide future judicial pronouncements. General Ibrahim Babangida’s annulment of the nearly flawless 1993 general elections was anchored ostensibly on a midnight court judgement that was in turn contrived to blame the entire judiciary.
Not long after, at the 1995 Judges Conference in Port Harcourt, no less a person than the then CJN, Hon. Justice Mohammed Bello, reportedly complained about the less than noble role of some courts in election-related matters, saying, ‘it is regrettable that at the beginning of the presidential elections, some judges cause their courts to be intimidated and subjected to manipulations of the political process and vested interest’.
More recently (and most conspicuously too), the bitter and messy disagreement in respect of the Sokoto election petition matter between the two highest placed judges in the land, then CJN Aloysius Katsina-Alu and Hon. Justice Ayo Salami, then President of the Court of Appeal, arguably marked some of the darkest days of the Nigerian judiciary.
Now the opportunity has come for a badly needed redemption of reputation and it is gratifying that Hon. Justice Mohammed has signalled his intention towards this end by his encouraging pronouncement. If adherence to the rule of law is central to democracy, a fearless, impartial and patriotic judicial arm of government, with its interpretative and arbitrative powers, is in turn central to the maintenance of rule of law.
This is, in a way, the fundamental of good governance. Indeed, it can be argued that judicial integrity can serve as the most decisive bulwark against political corruption and its corrosive effects on every sector of the society.
A combination of public confidence in the judiciary, and quick and fair dispensation of justice prevent a resort to self-help that destabilizes the polity.
This is to say that the courts must not only be of law, but of justice as well –and be seen to be so. The integrity of the judicial system is the ultimate protector of not only the rule of law, irrespective of the system of government, but of stability and progress. The integrity of the judiciary, irrespective of the nature and level of the court, is however, wholly dependent on the integrity, meaning among other things, uprightness, soundness, and wholesomeness, of the personnel. This starts of course, with the leadership.
The politicians, being what they are, are ever relentless to interfere with the judicial system – be it in the appointment of judges, the assignment of cases, and the work of judges. But these untoward attempts succeed only to the limits of the personal integrity of judicial officers on the one hand, and the collective integrity of the judiciary on the other hand. If there ever was a time Nigerians direly require integrity on the Bench and the Bar, it is now that a new dawn is breaking.
For the courts, the CJN has, in respect of the elections, set the right tone as well as issued the over-arching objective of the judiciary to the effect that in these times, national interest must come first and above any other.
He said at the swearing-in of the chairmen and members of the election tribunals, that “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.”
Nigerians have indicated their desire to stand together, to strengthen the democratic system, and to forge ahead. Indeed, the people’s spirit is high. Now, the courts – regular and special – have the clear and direct obligation to support the national restoration that has begun.