By Okechukwu Orji
In every clime, the judiciary is regarded as the third arm of government and the last hope of the common man. The 1999 Constitution (as amended) entrusts the judiciary with the arduous task of determining issues between citizens and citizens and the government. Put differently, it is the constitutional responsibility of the judiciary to act as arbiters, and to dispense justice to all and sundry, without fear or favour, affection or ill will.
The judiciary is made up of judges of the various courts, such as the state High Court, Federal High Court, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. These are various levels of courts. The Constitution provides for judicial hierarchy in which decisions from the state High Court or Federal High Court are tested on appeal in the Court of Appeal, and subsequently in the Supreme Court. By the principle of stare decisis, the decision of the Supreme Court is final and unchallengeable anywhere else. Such decision is binding on the Court of Appeal, the state High Court or Federal High Court, and indeed on all courts in Nigeria. Similarly, the decision of the Court of Appeal is binding on the state High Court or Federal High Court and other inferior courts. Now, these decisions of the Superior Court are said to be binding in the sense that no court below will deviate from such decisions.
However, peculiar circumstances, which are completely anathema and contrary to the age-old rule of stare decisis are playing out in the Anambra judiciary. Two communities, Ukpo and Abba, all in Anambra State, were enmeshed in a land dispute litigation. The matter took both sides to the Supreme Court, where it was held that the land belonged to Ukpo community. Ordinarily, the judgment of the Supreme Court in this matter is the final and the same cannot be appealed upon anymore.
Surprisingly, the Abba community brought another suit in respect of the same matter in the High Court of Anambra State after the judgment of the Supreme Court. The Chief Judge of Anambra State proceeded to assign the matter to a High Court sitting in Neni for determination. Given the fact that the highest court in the land had determined the matter previously, the Neni High Court dismissed the suit. Not yet done, the Abba community brought a motion to relist the suit again and the Chief Judge, again, assigned the matter to another court for hearing and determination. What is surprising is that the Chief Judge did this as the history of the case, especially the fact that the Supreme Court had determined the matter before, is clear.
The action of assigning the case to a judge in a lower court, after the Supreme Court had determined it, was inconsistent with judicial process. The litigation itself ought not to have been reignited in the first place, as the Supreme Court had given a decision on the matter. The qiestion is: What are the litigants doing again in the High Court and why should the Chief Judge assign the case, when the Supreme Court had given final judgment in it? The Chief Judge has the power to assign cases. He has the power to also refuse the assignment of frivolous suits. In fact, officials of the registry can also reject a frivolous suit on presentation for filing.
To try a suit the Supreme Court had decided constitutes gross disrespect for the apex court. It is an action, which is likely to introduce confusion and a pall of doubt on the administration of justice. This is one of such actions that attract condemnation for the judiciary and it calls for the scrutiny of not just the action but the man behind the action.
It is a sad commentary on our judiciary that, despite the recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Emeka Ihedioha and Governor Hope Uzodinma, that the decision of the Supreme Court remains sacrosanct and unassailable, some judicial officers are still acting as if the Supreme Court is just a house in Abuja. The action of the team of lawyers, which has kept on filing suits and motions, is also reprehensible. The Nigerian Bar Association should call them to order and bring them in line with the rules of professional conduct in the legal profession. The lawyers cannot claim that they are not aware of the decision of the Supreme Court on the issue. They should stop filing vexatious actions in court, as such actions constitute an abuse of court process.
What is playing out in Anambra State in the Ukpo/Abba land case involves more than a land suit. It calls for surgical operation of all the institutions involved in the judiciary and the legal profession. The judiciary should live above board. The legal profession should be practiced with due regard to professional ethics. It is expected that all those involved in this matter should be questioned by the appropriate bodies. This is the only way to restore public confidence in the judiciary and in the legal profession.
•Orji, a public affairs
analyst, writes from Abuja