The just sworn in Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, is taking off on a shaky note. The air which he is venturing into is foggy and filthy. And this is largely self-inflicted. The Honourable Justice has a grisly past; and he could be weighed down by the excruciating load of this inglorious past.
Until he joined 13 other Justices of the Supreme Court in their revolt against the immediate past CJN, Justice Tanko Muhammad, Ariwoola was an acolyte of the former CJN. They were birds of identical plumage. Both swam in the polluted ocean of procured judgments. But somehow the strange twist of fate has, at some point, pitted them against each other. That is what brought us to the ugly bend that burnt the toes of Justice Muhammad.
It is no longer news that Tanko ran an infamous Supreme Court. Those who knew even a little about the story of his tainted tenure are not surprised that he kissed the dust of ignominy. His ignominious exit from the bench was foretold. But the hallmark of Tanko’s unflattering regime was the scandalous judgment of the Supreme Court on the Imo State gubernatorial election of March 2019, which imposed on the state a governor the people never elected. The story of that judicial assault is too well known to elicit further rehearsal here. But what must be emphasized at this point is that Justices Muhammad and Ariwoola acted in cahoots in that rape of justice. One was as guilty as the other in that scandal of all time.
It is easy to recall that it was the Supreme Court led by Justice Tanko that entered into an absurd judgment that removed Emeka Ihedioha as the governor of Imo State on January 14, 2020. The judgment of the seven-man panel delivered by Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun had held then that the concurrent judgment of the lower courts erred in law when it excluded votes totaling 213,295 from 388 polling units from the total score at the election. It said that Ihedioha was returned as governor of Imo State based on wrong computation of the election results. Consequently, it set aside the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which upheld the election of Ihedioha on the grounds that he did not win majority of the votes cast in the March 9 governorship election. The court then held that the so-called excluded votes from the 388 polling units be ascribed to Hope Uzodinma and his party.
However, no sooner was the judgment delivered than the general public rose against it. Nigerians and the world at large were scandalized by the errors and absurdities contained in the judgment. The judicial assault, as should be expected, unleashed a rash of commentaries and analyses on the public space. But one common thread ran through them. There was unanimity of opinion that the judgment could not stand logical scrutiny. The court simply glossed over unhidden errors and entered a wrong judgment in spite of them.
Based on the foregoing and some other errors not highlighted here, Ihedioha, through his lawyers, approached the Supreme Court for a review of its judgment on grounds of nullity. Rather than right an obvious wrong, the Supreme Court chose to persevere in error. We recall also with disgust that it was Ariwoola, our today’s CJN, who drove that final nail in the coffin with which justice was ruinously buried in the Imo State governorship petition. He delivered the majority judgment that rejected Ihedioha’s well considered application for review and reversal of the earlier judgment.
Ariwoola said in the review judgement that the application for reversal of the judgment lacked merit and accordingly dismissed it. He argued, rather disingenuously, that the court lacked powers to sit on an appeal in its judgment delivered on merit and in accordance with the dictates of the law and justice. This was the crux of the matter. Ariwoola glossed over an obvious fact, which was that the earlier judgment that removed Ihedioha from office did not have merit and, therefore, ought to be reversed. The Justice also overlooked the fact that the judgment was not in accordance with the dictates of law and justice. Given the obvious errors contained in the judgment, the apex court had an opportunity to redeem its image through the review judgment. But Ariwoola stepped forward, unabashedly, to defend the absurd.
In order to obfuscate the matter and confuse the public, Ariwoola delved into semantic acrobatics. He said for effect: “There is no doubt that the court has inherent power in respect of matters within its jurisdiction, but certainly has no inherent power to assume jurisdiction in respect of a matter not within its jurisdiction.” This was sheer obfuscation. A clear case of language on holiday. Ariwoola deployed this grammatical sleight of hand to divert the attention of the public from the facts of the matter. But we were not fooled. We knew that something was fundamentally wrong with the disposition of the Supreme Court on that matter.
The only silver lining that the Supreme Court had at that time was the dissenting judgment of Justice Centus Nweze, which debunked all the grandstanding by Ariwoola and his gang. Nweze had said then that the judgment by the Supreme Court was a nullity and entered in bad faith. According to him, the declaration of Uzodinma as governor was wrong because he ( Uzodinma) mischievously misled the court into unjust conclusion with the unverified votes in 388 polling units. He averred: “ This court has powers to overrule itself and can revisit any decision not in accordance with justice.” He further held that “this decision of the Supreme Court will haunt our electoral jurisprudence for a long time to come.”
Some two and a half years down the line, Justice Ariwoola has come to confront his ugly past. He is standing face to face with the sins of yesteryear. The stigma associated with the fraudulent judgment has become a blot on the otherwise fair face of its perpetrators. Today, Justice Ariwoola will have a hell of time building confidence in the people because he had, in the past, acted in violation of good conscience. As Justice Nweze rightly predicted, that ugly decision of the Supreme Court is not just haunting our electoral jurisprudence, it is has become a blight on the career of its progenitors.
Ariwoola, one of the Supreme Court Justices that gave the country the worst judgment in its legal history, has now been thrust upon us as CJN. Under his new role, he is being asked to cleanse the Augean Stable that our temple of justice has become. What an irony. But we cannot but ask: Does he possess the moral credentials to undertake this onerous assignment? Time, as they say, will tell.