Editor's note: Elections and constitution building enthusiast, Samson Itodo, writes on the focus on the judiciary, as the third arm of government adjudicates on the petitions arising from the 2019 general elections. Itodo is also the Executive Director of YIAGA AFRICA and Convener of the Not Too Young To run movement.
Democracy thrives with an independent judiciary that is insulated from undue interference. The judiciary is the hope of the common man as well as the political elite. Nigeria has just concluded its general elections where the contest for political power assumed unimaginable acmes with democratic institutions weakened and sabotaged by the state; rampageous political thugs destroyed election materials, abducted and rap*d election officials; voter suppression manifested through arbitrary cancellations of votes and purchase of voter cards from eligible voters; selective and non-application of electoral guidelines and violence were the order of the day.
These elections have come and gone, and attention has shifted from the umpire who may have not sufficiently discharged her constitutional responsibilities. All eyes are now on the judiciary, who is not just the third arm of government but the umpire to adjudicate the petitions arising from the elections.
At this point, the critical question to ask is “Is the Nigerian judiciary ready, and able deliver justice?”
In recent times, the Nigerian judiciary has been mired in corruption scandals, their Lordships have been accused of consistently desecrating the sacred temple of justice without reprimand or sanctions. Since the Buhari administration came into office, there has been stings targeted at the judiciary with the most recent being the suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria based on non-declaration of assets. Admittedly, there is corruption in the court, however, the attacks on the temple of justice have further eroded the trust and belief in the judiciary as the hope of the ordinary man. This distrust will play out in the election petitions where even if the court correctly dispenses the law, they are likely to be perceived as partisan and another gun for hire.
It is scary to note the pervading fear across board, that justice may be difficult to obtain against a ruling party. It is believed that only an overly courageous judge can muster the audacity to acknowledge an irregularity and annul an election where the ruling party won. This perceived fear of intimidation and accompanying backlash, as well as the fear of violence outbreak, are palpable trepidations for most judges today. It is therefore plausible to opine that instilling fear in judges is a viable tactic employed by politicians to muscle the judiciary and undermine its ability to deliver justice.
The judiciary cannot be sequestered from culpability. The number of conflicting judgments issued on the same or similar matters by courts of coordinate jurisdiction is alarming. Some judges are either yielding to corrupt politicians or shying away from responsibilities and in that guise issue contentious judgments. Since the conclusion of the elections, we’ve witnessed abuse of court processes. The first was a judge who ruled on matters which fall within the purview of election petition tribunal; subsequently, others started dishing out injunctions prohibiting the counting of votes and restraining INEC from organising supplementary elections and sundry matters. If the interest of justice was ever considered some of the anomalies that unfolded would never have seen the light of the day.
The new normal is for politicians to perpetrate electoral malpractices and urge their opponents to approach the court for judicial review. The norm is to recruit the services of legal counsel, mostly Senior Advocates with a good media profile. The lawyers are not just adept at using technicalities to subvert the law but are believed to have the ability to bribe judges to procure favourable judgments. In some cases, Senior Advocates often regarded as veterans with good media profile and public acceptance are purposely recruited to give legal proceedings a toga of legitimacy where the judges and their conspirators anticipate backlash or substantial public outcry over a procured judgement.
Another evolving trend is the safety of judges on election petition assignments. For instance, the Osun state governorship election petition tribunals had to relocate her sitting to Abuja for security purposes. It is also important to point out the alarming fears that the location of a court may influence the judgement or ideological orientation of the judges. The Zamfara APC conundrum and ruling is a pointer.
The judiciary is tasked with the responsibility of dispensing over 639 pre-election cases arising from the party primaries and 736 cases emanating from the just concluded elections. The presidential election has four election petitions, 207 for senatorial elections, 101 for the house of representatives, 43 in governorship and 381 in the state house of assembly elections. The number of election petitions reveals the heated nature of the electoral contest and the conviction of some actors, that they were shortchanged in the just concluded elections. It is a welcome development when aggrieved candidates and political parties approach the courts for redress instead of resorting to violence. It is therefore incumbent on the court to deliver justice.
Judicial review is the bedrock of democracy, and without it, the rights and liberty of the people will be jeopardised. It connotes, the court is an impartial umpire in the business of government and controls the management of societal affairs. It is the constitutional right of the judiciary to review and cancel legislation or actions that taken illegally by the government. It further connotes the reassessment or re-examination by judges of a decision or proceeding by a lower court or government department. Judicial review must, therefore, advance the cause of electoral justice.
Moreover, electoral justice will be attained if only those who are called to dispense justice in the society are themselves part of the democratic system and are imbued with democratic ideas. Therefore, the courts and her ministers in the temple of justice must be insulated from the undercurrents of partisan politics. As human beings, they may have their individual political beliefs, but they must divorce their professional personalities from partisan politics if they would be trusted to dispense justice without fear or favour. The Nigerian judiciary cannot afford to fail the Nigerian people.
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