Politics

Is the Nigerian Judiciary Back in the Pockets of Politicians?

In the last two months, several court orders and counter-orders had been issued against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), particularly as it relates to the November 6 governorship election in Anambra State.

On one occasion, the court had ordered the electoral umpire to recognise a particular aspirant as the candidate of a political party and within a short while, another order of court equal jurisdiction had directed INEC to drop that person and, in his stead, fill in another person.

As it stands, it is hard to say between a former Central Bank Governor, Chukwuma Soludo, and Chukwuma Umeoji, who would finally be on the ballot for the All Progressives Grand Alliance or who would finally be governor, assuming APGA wins the election, as both parties will certainly fight to the finish, up to the Supreme Court.

Worried by the development, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad, immediately swung into action by summoning six Chief Judges of State High Court in the country in a bid to halt the apparent decay in the judiciary, often occasioned by indiscriminate granting of court orders and injunctions by some pliable judges who have by their dishonourable conduct brought the Bench to disrepute.

Some of the state Chief Judges invited before the NJC include that of Rivers, Anambra, Jigawa, Kebbi, Imo, and Cross River.

A copy of the letter of invitation indicated that the affected Chief Judges are to appear before the Chief Justice of Nigeria, as a prelude to the larger one by the NJC to explain what warranted issuance of conflicting orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction.

While the High Courts of Imo, Jigawa, and Anambra need to explain their roles in the Anambra governorship election, the High Courts of Rivers, Kebbi, and Cross River on the other hand are involved in the case of the PDP Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus.

It was gathered that the CJN complained bitterly on the huge embarrassment caused the Nigerian judiciary by the actions of those who issued the conflicting orders upon ex-parte applications by some politicians.

The summons, dated August 30, 2021, read in part: “My attention has been drawn to media reports to the effect that some Courts of coordinate jurisdiction were granting conflicting ex-parte Orders on the same subject matter.

“It has become expedient for me to invite you for a detailed briefing on the development.

“This is even more compelling having regard to earlier NJC warning to judicial officers on the need to be circumspect in granting ex-parte applications.”

Unlike other times that the National Judicial Council (NJC) would wait for a petition from the public before investigating and disciplining any erring judge, the CJN has on his own taken the decision to look into the issue and might wield the big stick on the erring justices.

Although this is not the first time the intervention of the courts has threatened the nation’s democracy, this instance has generated real worries about the future of the country’s democracy.

In a flashback, this development reminds one of Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court who was the first to attempt to truncate Nigeria’s democracy, when on June 10, 1993, he issued a restraining order on the then electoral umpire from going ahead with the scheduled June 12, 1993 presidential election.

The judge had granted the order despite clear provisions of Decree number 13, which stated that no court of law could interfere with conduct of the election.

The restraining order was sequel to an ex-parte application by a shadow organisation, the Association of Better Nigeria (ABN), led by a disqualified presidential aspirant in the person of Arthur Nzeribe.

The National Election Commission (NEC) had defied the order and went ahead to conduct the presidential election as scheduled on June 12, 1993. The commission was however restrained from going ahead to release the results of the election.

But, while the candidate of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Moshood Abiola, was already on the cusp of victory after leading in 15 states where election results were announced, Justice Saleh had in a ruling on an ex-parte application on June 15, 1993, stopped NEC from further announcement of the election results.

And due to the actions of the court, Abiola till his death never became president, as the former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election, adjudged the freest and fairest at the time in Nigeria.

In this fourth democracy, the intervention of the court also made Rotimi Amaechi, who did not contest an election in 2007, to be governor of Rivers State.

The court had hinged its decision on the grounds that it was a political party that contested election and not an individual. Although the court has found a way of correcting itself after it later held in another case that for a candidate to be declared winner, s/he must participate in all the processes of an election.

Almost three decades after the first attempt, some judges are still in the habit of doing the biddings of money bags against the interest of the country, legal profession, and even the oath of office they swore to.

According to some public analysts, the development has since put the nation’s judiciary in a big mess.

Before the suspension and return to office orders on the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, by three High Courts in Rivers, Kebbi, and Cross River States, former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, was also last year before his sack by the APC National Working Committee (NWC) restrained and later ordered back to office by High Courts in FCT, Abuja, Benin, and Kano. Court order are now so cheap that they now worth less than the paper they are written on.

Analysts are of the view that the judges are not alone in this trade. For these analysts, some very senior lawyers share in the blame, in the way and manner they file frivolous applications. It is the willingness of the judges to entertain these applications and issue consequential orders that has baffled many.

These senior lawyers allegedly go from court to court, shopping for interim injunctions. Only last year, the apex court, while delivering ruling in an application for the court to review and vacate its own judgment, slammed a whopping N30 million each on two very senior lawyers.

Justice Amina Augie, who had read the ruling of the Supreme Court with tears in her eyes, lamented that “very senior” lawyers were responsible for filing the suit.

Regrettably however, nothing till date has been done to deter such, apart from small fines that make no dent in the pockets of such lawyers.

Reacting to this development, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) said it would punish any member found wanting. The NBA said it “has observed with dismay the unfortunate and recurring trend of contradictory court decisions and orders, especially among courts of coordinate jurisdiction, typically arising from ex-parte applications and almost always in political matters.”

In a statement by its President, Mr. Olumide Akpata, the NBA chided especially, senior lawyers for the malaise, saying, “Astonishingly, that commitment (to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007) is now being threatened by the conduct of some of our own members, the majority of whom are senior members of the Bar, who continue to yield themselves to be used as willing tools by politicians to wantonly abuse the judicial process.”

Indicating that it might sanction erring members going forward, the NBA said, “By the issuance of this statement, the NBA confirms unequivocally that it will not stand by and watch a ridiculing of the profession and the justice administration system by a handful of its members and will be considering its deterrence options in this regard.”

While not sparing the judiciary in the debacle, the NBA said, “The Bench, respectfully, is also not blameless. We certainly concur with the Honourable Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme of the Court of Appeal in her condemnation of the indulgence by some judicial officers of politicians, who go round the country shopping for judgments, and who thereby bring the Judiciary to public ridicule.”

This development is fast making people to lose faith in the judicial system and if not checked, lawyers and judges might put the country in bigger problem, because the situation in Nigeria is unbelievably very bad. Black market injunctions are dished out on a regular basis to the highest bidder. There are growing feelings that the courts no longer dispense justice, and that they merely dish out orders to whoever can afford them.

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