In Defence Of Our Jurists
It is very alarming to notice the frequency of hot expressions, bitterness, acrimony, verbal and written assaults often heaped on the door-steps of the nations’ court/quasi court system, over judgment and verdicts, painstakingly churned out after due litigation procedure in courts.
Not once, not twice, has the reputation of some revered judicial officers handling or hearing matters been smeared, punctured and at times, dragged in the mud by election losers or their agents, who often approach the tribunals to reclaim alleged stolen mandates.
A retrospective peep into the records reveals some names of the judges shot down by public opprobrium over allegations that bother on controversial or bought judgments he 1979 general elections period.
For instance, Mr Fatai Williams, a onetime president of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, delivered judgment on September 25, 1979 in election petition that sought to interpret two-thirds of 19 states. His verdict, perhaps, heralded public acrimony and tempted the masses to begin pointing accusing fingers at the courts, nay judges, soon after final judicial pronouncements. Of course, that landmark judgment, seen by many as controversial, eventually handed electoral victory to Alhaji Shehu Shagari at the expense of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the petitioner, in that year’s presidential polls.
If Nigerians were bewildered over the verdict, they were even more furious in yet another instance, when a lady judge, Justice Bassey Ikpeme of Abuja High Court succumbed to undue pressure and stopped the nation’s electoral umpire (NEC) from conducting the June 12 polls. Her controversial judicial pronouncement came even as the election procedure had begun in earnest and results were trickling in from 14 states out of 19, with M.K.O Abiola on the lead.
Her reason for the said court injunction, came from the Association of Better Nigeria (ABN), spearheaded by Mr Arthur Nzeribe, who challenged the nomination of Mr Abiola as the party’s candidate at the Jos Convention. Nzeribe’s contention was that Abiola’s emergence at the convention was inconclusive, and wished the court to order immediate stoppage of the elections.
Indeed, Justice Ikpeme wasted no time in granting Nzeribe’s prayer, even in an ongoing free, fair election process in hand. What a legal controversy that almost ruined the political pillars of Nigeria, one may ask?
Yet another judgment that also baffled most Nigerians was the verdict churned out by Justice Egbo Egbo of Abuja Federal High Court and that of Justice Stanley Nnaji of Enugu High Court, against Dr Chris Ngige of Anambra State during the 2003 polls. Both judges in their separate rulings, had held that Dr Ngige voluntarily resigned from office as governor, hence, was vulnerable for prosecution in court as any ordinary citizen. Again, majority of Nigerians were angry with the judiciary, thereby fuelling their disdain towards the courts and its officials. Their main grouse was on the legality of a judge sitting in Enugu State to adjudicate on a matter that ought to receive attention in Anambra courts.
Such judicial misdemeanor by its officials were also observed in Sokoto State in the 2007 governorship election, where issue of arrest of judgment was blown out, thereby dragging the judiciary into more disrepute.
Perhaps, this and more disgraceful actions made some pundits to wonder whether the trials of the judiciary by the public is justifiable, moreso, as Major-General Buhari then ordered a great purge that swept out judges whose hands were allegedly soiled, thereby denting the judiciary’s image by way of cash and carry judgments. A former chief judge of Borno State, Justice Kalu Anya, was one of those affected in that purge. Another jurist, Justice Okoro Idoku, who the legendry musical icon, Fela Anikolapo Kuti and surprisingly visited him (Fela) in prison to confess that his hands were tied in delivering the judgment that brought Fela to jail. He was equally shown the exit door for ridiculing the reputation of the judiciary in such manner.
Although the above examples are indications of how some judicial officers have degraded the judiciary over a period of time, the question one would ask is, could the misbehaviour of a few judges, be enough reason to encourage the public, especially aggrieved politicians, pocket lawyers and persons without adequate knowledge of the legal procedures to, castigate and embarrass judges sitting over their cases?
Agreed that freedom of expression guarantees individuals the right to express themselves, even against a judge or his decisions on a matter before his consideration at the court, but such right certainly does not include pre-judgmental newspaper reports and drunkard’s evaluation of a given case, against a dully procedural litigation that is expected to end in a collective judgment in a court of law. Perhaps, this is why jurists, after reading their verdicts in a law suit or at tribunals, ended their long rigorous hand written conclusions of a pending matter with sentence: this is the judgment of the court, at least, to distinguish theirs from trials outside the court room.
After all, Justice Oputa in the case of Orodoyin and others Versus Arowolo and others, had confirmed judgment to mean official and authentic decision of a court upon the respective rights and claims of the parties to an action or suit, therein litigated and submitted to the determination of the court.
According to him, it is the decision of a court resolving the dispute between the parties and thus determining their rights and obligations. It is a conclusion of law upon facts as found or admitted by the parties. It is a decision given by a court upon matters submitted to it.
Nigerians should strive to abide by decisions of the court where they took their matters to or should stop going for litigation in the first instance. The attitude of litigants recoursing to excessive research to unearth the dirty or ugly sides of life of a judge that sat over their cases, with a view to splashing more mud on them to exacting pound of flesh from them because of the court’s verdict against such litigants, is not the best way to preserve democracy and rule of law. Politicians should learn their lesson from Chief Awolowo, Buhari and of late, Atiku, who at various instances emerged runners-up during presidential polls in this country, and were bitter, like any other person, over their failures. But they never pulled down the jurists nor roped their families or subjected them to public odium, through written or verbal attacks.
Similarly, one has also witnessed an unprecedented policing/monitoring and of course harassment of officials of Akwa Ibom Election Petition Tribunal before they rounded off their sittings. The state National Assembly Governorship tribunal members were often accused at the tribunal venue of ruling unfavourably for one party over the other. The tribunal was constantly lashed for allegedly dismissing some petitions on mere technicalities. In short; it was a tension soaked legal exchange, coupled with provocative languages with strangers hardly understanding the distinction between legal facts and abusive stuffs.
To substantiate this position, it is reported that APC in Akwa Ibom has braved all odds posed by the impassable state of the Calabar-Itu-Ikot Ekpene road to file appeals at Appeal Court in Calabar. And has also sought to challenge the alleged compromise of the tribunal members in the state by the PDP before NJC.
One would have thought that with the verdict that affirmed PDP’s victory in virtually all the petitions, APC would settle down to offer constructive criticism to government policies with its status as a major opposition party and wait till 2023 to try its luck again at the polls. Or that the party would have toed the line of one of its candidates, Mr Bassey Etim, who took Senator Bassey Albert to available courts in the land to snatch the Uyo Senatorial seat from him, but without success.
Mr Etim, as reported in a local tabloid on October 23, 2019, was quoted appreciating his supporters for standing by him throughout the trials, affirming his strong belief that Bassey Albert’s empowerment programmes will better the lot of Uyo Senatorial District and handed off the struggle at that point.
One does not know whether Mr Bassey Etim’s latest democratic credential and wisdom in this regard is a carry-over from his former party, the PDP, which he left to carry his perpetual cross of senatorial ambition in APC, is another indication that he will soon return to base (PDP), especially when one judges his follow-up speech from the said tabloid to his followers thus: democracy demands constant participation, not four years only, but all time. Never stop believing that fighting for what is just and right is worth the effort. Keep on fighting now and always. One day it will pay off, Etim opines, as he distanced himself from unnecessary harassment, accusation and insult on judges who tried his petitions in Uyo and Calabar.
Apart from Mr Bassey Etim’s consistent rivalry with Senator Bassey Albert over Uyo Senatorial seat, other candidates had done so in the state, but without pulling the carpet off the feet of tribunal members or roping innocent persons into the dust-bin of history.
Such included the petitions by late Obong Akpan Isemin versus Effiong Bob in Uyo Senatorial tussle of 2003; Mr James Iniama versus Gov Godswill Akpabio (2007) governorship dispute; John James Udoedghe vs Godswill Akpabio (2011) governorship position, Mr Steve Ibanga vs Godswill Akpabiop (2011) governorship tussle, and Mr Frank Okon vs Gov Godswill Akpabio (2007) governorship struggle.
However, the election petition tribunal that nearly divided the citizens of the state along ethnic line was the 2003 governorship struggle between late Chief Ime Umana and Obong Victor Attah who was seeking a second term in office. After the tribunal had pronounced Obong Victor Attah as dully elected governor for a second term, the 3-member tribunal of Mrs Matilda Adamu, chairman, her colleagues. A.T Ahura and A. M. Elelegwu, were not too lucky to go home and rest with their reputation intact again as they were petitioned to the NJC, just as the state APC has done currently. In that episode, desperate politicians and money monger writers were made handy to splash mud so that the jurists could be disgraced in the process. To facilitate the process, reporters, photographers, computer wizards, informants, etc were recruited and heavily financed to orchestrate the said bribery scandal. It was a common scene on newspaper pages and that of emergency magazines show-casing wads of naira notes spread in the hotel room of one of the accused tribunal members, all in attempt to prove that money actually changed hands during the tribunal sittings.
Justice Matilda Adamu, who was before that brief assignment in Akwa Ibom, a chief judge designate in her home state of Plateau, was accused of accepting N6.4 million as bribe to return Obong Attah as governor, according to Chief Ime Umana. She was however boxed into helpless position as her police orderly by name Sergent Peter Kasai, allegedly told secrete investigators that he lodged the above sum at Standard Trust Bank (STB) under the name of Justice Adamu, his boss.
Surprisingly not even a counter petition by Adamu against Chief Ime Umana that he (Umana) sent one Senlong to mount pressure on her to collect a bribe worth N50, million, with immediate down payment of N10m onbehalf of Chief Umana could save the situation for Adamu, as NJC decided to sanction the three judges based on its findings. Akwa Ibom State chief judge by then, Justice Effiong Idiong (late), who was mentioned by Chief Umana as the facilitator of the alleged bribery from government to the tribunal members was left off the hook of the petitioner by divine grace, against the wishes of the petitioner to nail him at all costs.
Although one does not applaud bribery and corruption in whatever form, it is also genocidal in nature for some persons to beat their chests and swear that so long as they are down, every other person must be down too. Why should our politicians always believe that since they failed to push through their petitions at tribunals, coupled with enormous financial expenses incurred by them, that all perceived enemies must sink collectively with them? Apart from many instances of losing jobs, most judges, whose image had been dented following court verdicts, have unfortunately died due to shame and loss of reputation in the society.
Perhaps, it is due to the consistent prying into the official conducts of judicial officers by members of the public that prompted someone to cry aloud that the judiciary is the only one that has been punishing its members who have been found guilty of alleged corrupt practices. The executive, the legislature, whose members are part of the mass ought to also check themselves too. Moreso, as the business of how to spend Nigeria’s money and who will spend it resides with both executive and legislature. The judiciary is not that exposed to where money is kept and cannot bribe itself in such circumstance, as the givers of such bribes are hanging elsewhere like cats waiting to torment the rats at the slights chance.
It is undoubtable that the integrity of the judiciary and its officials are often lowered significantly during election petition periods, as such, efforts should be made to recruit only judges with unquestionable character to partake at election tribunal trials when such opportunity knocks. Chief judges of each state should be saddled with a task of perusing files of judges to select only upright ones. To avoid doing such selections based on sentiments, the chief judge should be made to sign a pact that will enable him/her to relinquish his office in case any of the nominees, faltered during the official assignment at the tribunal.
Since the judges are not permitted to speak much to the public, they seem to be hindered from defending themselves in public accusations intermittently. The onus, therefore lies on the Nigerian Bar (lawyers) to do so for them. But in circumstances where most exposed lawyers are interested in money-making for themselves, they often abandon excessive constitutional breaches that can tarnish the image of their profession, in order not to hunt the government and so denied themselves government’s patronage.
The bar ought to be vibrant to challenge human rights abuses by governments, call its members in the executive arm to order, when they go against the constitution and not wait until when a government finishes its tenure before talking about attrocities committed. For them to be able to do this, the bar leaders should wash off their hands from corrupt dealings to avoid being pumelled to submission by the authority in the name of offences bothering on corruption, whose trial can encourage total seal of lips on their part.
Above all, politicians should avoid flaunting their excessive wealth before the public, especially at election periods. If they can use their money to help fellow countrymen who are ravaged by poverty to renovate community schools, hospitals, create small industries to engage restless youths in their domains, this will make their subsequent electoral bids a mere walk-over against any opponent.
There will be no better rivalry during the elections because of the affinity such person had established with the electorate. The votes will go into one basket. The tribunal will not have much work to do since both politicians and the electorate must have played their parts in genuine and transparent style. Tribunal members will not be charged of collecting bribes. The public will not have need to put them on trial or ridicule them on errors often committed by politicians from the field.