“The decision of the Supreme Court on the instant matter will continue to haunt our electoral jurisprudence for a long time to come.” – Justice Centus Chima Nweze
The above is an excerpt from the historic minority ruling of Justice Centus Nweze of the Supreme Court, SC, of Nigeria on the controversial Imo State gubernatorial elections. The prophetic but dissenting verdict read on March 3, 2020, was not intended as a curse but a warning of a looming danger. Ever since that historic SC ruling, the judiciary, depicted as a blinded virgin with measuring scales and regarded with reverence, has been struggling to keep its virginity. An Indian Public Interest lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, is quoted to have said: “Independence of [the] Judiciary means independence from Executive and Legislature, but not independence from accountability.”
The above means that the judiciary in Nigeria should be accountable to the people. What justices do and how they do it must meet the aspirations of Nigerians since they are independent [or supposed to be] of the other two arms of government, Executive and Legislature. Does the judiciary realize this aspect of its responsibility to the Nigerian people? Do the executive and legislative arms realize also that they have no oversight power over the judiciary? These are a million questions as we Xray the judiciary since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power six years ago.
When President Buhari assumed office in 2015, champagne were popped with highly positive expectations of the new government. People trekked unspeakable distances to Abuja in ecstasy and solidarity. In 2023 when he will leave office it is most likely that glasses will still klink in the joy that this cup has passed after all and initial numerous expectations unmet. Even the President is gripped by the fear of failure and he is voicing it out already. The third arm of government, the judiciary, is one critical component that is needed in a democracy as it underpins every political action and lies at the heart of every democratic behaviour.
This critical truth we need to establish as a premise upon which to stand to analyze the judiciary under the incumbent president. Perhaps, the biggest assault and discomfiture of the Buhari administration to democracy is the January 2019 unilateral removal of Chief Justice Walter Onnoghen, in a blatant violation of the doctrine of separation of powers. Another dent on the judiciary by this government was the midnight attacks on the homes of judges and justices across the country in October 2016 in the name of fighting corruption. That was the first salvo from an impatient Executive eager to trample on the sanctity of separation of powers.
It is, therefore, against these sore backdrops that we enter this week’s con-versation on the judiciary under the present dispensation. The importance of the judiciary in a democracy is best captured by an American author and diplomat, Caroline Kennedy, the daughter of a former US President John F. Kennedy. She said: “The bedrock of our democracy is the rule of law and that means we have to have an independent judiciary, judges who can make decisions independent of the political winds that are blowing.” Can it be honestly said that Nigerian judges have been making decisions independent of the blowing political winds in the country? The answer is NO because even when the executive unilaterally removed the then CJN, the judiciary was complacent.
When the executive used security agents to harass and intimidate justices in 2016, the judiciary neither barked nor talked of biting. Why? Perhaps, because they entangled themselves in the blowing political winds and could not raise sticks on even erring judicatory operatives.
Undoubtedly, one of the greatest factors leading to the apparent whittling down of the judiciary’s powers in the eyes of Nigerians is the bizarre ruling by SC on the Imo governorship elections. The fact that the judiciary was misled and when allowed to correct itself, still went ahead to insist on the strange judicial arithmetical blunder, ignoring the advisory of Justice Nweze, left a permanent scar. The warning of Justice Nweze against allowing a wrong to persist on the excuse that the decision was taken by an apex body is coming to fruition. The political disquiet in Imo that has made the area a theatre of war, is not unconnected with the Supreme Court that removed the power to elect a governor from the people.
You cannot beat a child and still demand absolute silence from the beaten. Judges at lower courts are bastardizing judgements and allowing the blowing political winds, not jurisprudence to dictate direction. The apparent indiscipline in the judiciary today was made manifest lately in the various judicial interventions in the political cases going on in the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the ongoing turmoil ahead of the November 6, 2021, governorship election in Anambra State. In all the instances, judges of coordinate powers have been countering themselves from different locations.
The fact that Anambra people could find no justice in their state or zone and had to rely on courts in Jigawa and Imo and Abuja, and PDP had to run from Rivers to Kebbi and Cross River states says a lot about the weight of political winds blowing against the nation’s judiciary.
The National Judicial Council (NJC) the body charged with order in the judicial system, may have been weakened after it failed to save itself from the overbearing executive that blatantly removed the CJN and it could do nothing because of prevailing political winds.
If not so, after the current CJN had warned judges against indiscriminate interim judicial orders, what happened in Anambra, Rivers, Jigawa, Kebbi, Cross River and now Delta concerning interim orders should not have happened. Even as the Chief Justice is said to have summoned Chief Judges of the affected states for interrogation after pressure, the truth remains that the foundation for a disciplined and forthright judiciary is wrongly laid in this dispensation because of the mode of hiring and firing of judges at all levels.
The political involvement in the appointment of judges leaves room for defects. The judges,from head to toe, appear more loyal to those who influenced their appointments than to the system that demands professionalism. If we have a right to judge our judiciary by the effect it has in our system since they should be accountable, we have a right also to say that the judiciary under this dispensation has been underwhelming in performance.
Yes, we know as a fact, as it is commonly argued that judges are products of a flirty larger society but it is for this realization that the concept of checks and balances were introduced with the judiciary having the larger stick on its hand to discipline other arms of government. In moral parlance, judicial officers are next in importance to priests and imams.
That is why in the olden days one person occupied the two positions. It could be said that the foundation of corruption in the judiciary was perhaps laid by the Israelites of old who migrated from priest-kings and to absolute monarchy. Their first King Saul showed them how dangerous it was to create monsters in leaders. If the judiciary desires respect from the public, its verdicts must be respectful.
Anything short of that, it would be robbing itself of its hallowedness and they could board the same bus with politicians when the day of reckoning arrives. If therefore, the judiciary cannot resist the dubious political winds blowing to destroy our polity, we can as well sing Nunc dimittis to our democracy. God, help us.