Many Troubles of Nigeria’s Judiciary, By Niran Adedokun
POLITICS DIGEST – It is doubtful that the Supreme Court of Nigeria has ever been subjected to the kind of challenge it recently faced and it really, never should.
The Supreme Court of any country should be an authority on the spirit and letter of the law. Although it is not the legislature, the Supreme Court is a lawmaker. That is not just because its judgments become precedents that ultimately become the law; it is also because it interprets the laws made by the legislature and such interpretations, no matter what they are, stand. At least until the legislature effects a change. Challenging decisions of the Supreme Court is, therefore, a big dent on the integrity of the judiciary.
It is, however, not just that in the instant case. The fact that this challenge is on the very delicate political front is equally worrisome. Partisan politics is largely toxic and when the judiciary, which should be the arbiter is drawn into political wars, (as gladiators of the All Progressive Congress and the Peoples Democratic Party make the Bayelsa and Imo States gubernatorial judgments) a nation should know it is in trouble. This, I think, is an indication of the loss of confidence in the judiciary in the first instance, a precarious situation for a country craving investment from other parts of the world to be.
The challenge is also indicative of degeneration in the ethics of politics in Nigeria. The English man says there should be honour, even amongst thieves, hence, no matter how contentious an election may be, partisans must realise that there must be an end to litigation. They must also respect that end, even if it means undeserved losses. Sometimes, personal interests should make way for the common good.
However, the court of law must see that justice is served and seen to be served. That is critical to the survival of nations. But then, life is not always fair and when men get to those inevitable junctures, sacrifices should be made for country’s sake, something that is not common in Nigeria.
This is why political parties work without consciousness of internal democracy and politicians’ souls are now so desperate that they would do anything, including dragging down national institutions in their bid to retain power. It is the reason why very senior lawyers, whose foremost duty is the protection of the judiciary, would undertake steps that undermine the same institution.
So, while this is not an exoneration of the justices of the Supreme Court from any perceived miscarriage of justice in the cases under discussion, these requests for reviews are a telling disregard for the sanctity of the laws of the land. This point strikes you more when you recall that, regardless of the contention that followed the determination of what made two-thirds of 19 states, following the 1979 General elections, everyone, including the petitioner, the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo, himself a Senior Advocate of Nigeria respected the finality of the Supreme Court judgment.
That is not to say that the Supreme Court, as well as the entire judicial system, has not lost its steam. Indeed, there were days when erudition was the hallmark of every pronouncement from that court. In fact, followers of trends at the Supreme Court should be worried about the volume of unanimity attending judgments these days. Gone were the days when, as we saw a flicker with Justice C Nweze on Tuesday, judgments became subjects of intellectual discussions following sound arguments provided by majority and minority positions of the justices.
Two facts suggest that the Supreme Court may have found itself wanting in these cases. The first is that the dismissal of the applications for review rested mainly on the terminal status of the Supreme Court by the nation’s constitution. In dismissing the application of the APC in the Bayelsa governorship election matter, Justice Amina Augie was said to have employed some emotions and lambasted senior members of the bar who led the party and its candidates to the Supreme Court simply because they should know better. And in justifying that, she read the following from the judgement: “This court is not authorised and lacks jurisdiction to review its judgment except on the circumstances spelt out in order 8 rule 16 of the rules of this court….It is settled that the decision of this court is final…This is final court and its decisions are final for all ages.” The Supreme Court evidently applied the letter of the law here. What about justice?
Then, there is Justice Nweze’s minority judgment in the application concerning the Imo State gubernatorial seat. Nweze reminded that when the letters of any law fail in the disposal of justice, there could indeed be a call on the spirit, not just to redeem the image of the judiciary, but save the society from injustice and the perpetuation of illegality!
Something is clearly wrong with the Supreme Court and the entire judiciary by extension. How, after this, can the rest of the body be well when the head is ailing? What do we do?
Where to start from is an interrogation and reform of the process for the appointment of judges. Appointments into federal and state High Courts from where people mostly proceed to the bench of higher courts are made by the President and Governors of the 36 states. Although the 1999 Constitution, as amended, prescribes a role for the National Judicial Council, state governors are largely in control of this process, which is roundly subjected to political considerations rather than competence, character and the aptitude of appointees. And as each of these judicial officers move on in their careers, they hold baggage of political IOUs of godfathers who hold onto the leash for as long as possible.
A corollary to this is the poor remuneration and condition of service that hold judicial officers’ captive. While it is true that judges are known to have political ideologies all around the world, it is worse in Nigeria because they are mostly poorly remunerated and work in really deplorable conditions. As a result, they are left at the mercy of political or business lords, who pull the strings. Nigerians assume that judges are super humans that are unsusceptible to emotions like their own, but this is a fallacy. A fall out of this is that obscene situation where justices would retire at the age of 70 and rather than remain a pool of resource to the country, they become consultants to inimical interests.
The third point is that Nigerian judges are overworked. This means that there is a dearth of judges in the system, such that one judge may have as many as 30 cases to deal with at a particular time. You then wonder how much time they have to study these cases and be the best at it. The job allows judges travel incognito to study places and people who are parties in cases before them just to enrich their understanding of the situation before writing judgments. But how many Nigerian judges have the time and resources to embark on such locus in quo. Even when they do, how safe are they?
And then there is the issue of the lack of financial autonomy that state judiciaries are still grappling with. When the judiciary depends on state governors who are mostly totalitarian, the prospects of an independent judiciary is negligible. This is not to speak about the archaic and laborious processes under which many judicial officers operate in Nigeria.
In all, Nigerians, while criticising the judiciary, must realise the role that this environment plays in their careers. Judges need to enjoy a few privileges that will make them shun temptations. In the affairs of men, judges are next to God, yet they are human. So, society has got to be real in its treatment of judicial officers, elect the best to sit on the bench and give them the best that life can offer. That is a good way to start to reform the judiciary.
Adedokun tweets @niranadedokun