If the legal principle of decided cases (stare decisis) did not exist, it would have had to be invented. It is based on the logic that similar cases ought to be decided similarly, and that the sound decisions of superior courts should be followed by lower courts and not ignored, even by courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction. That way, the judiciary is able to bring order, uniform standards and predictability to the administration of justice.
Recent judgments delivered in several superior courts in Nigeria are giving many Nigerians, including the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, cause for concern. The foremost jurist announced last week that the National Judicial Council (NJC) will probe the judges who strayed from this important principle.
Justice Mohammed spoke at the commencement of the new legal year of the Supreme Court and the investiture of the new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs). He was also at the opening of the 32nd Annual Conference of Federal High Court Judges in Abuja where he also reminded judges to remain apolitical, independent and neutral in their rulings. An avalanche of criticisms and petitions has been trailing serving judges accused of judicial misconduct following their conflicting rulings. The Chief Justice apparently felt obliged to remind the judges of the stare decisis principle.
We commend the Chief Justice for speaking up on this important matter. We urge him to also follow up with appropriate action to convince Nigerians who have heard such exhortations to no avail from our judicial authorities in the past.
Conflicting judgments such as have been passed in the country in the past few months suggest to many Nigerians that court judgments are for purchase by the highest bidder. The problem is, especially, acute when it concerns political litigations, where there is so much pressure to corrupt the system because of the “do-or-die” and “lose and you’re lost” mentality in Nigerian politics.
We strongly believe that the strength of any democracy is in the efficiency and reliability of its judiciary. Adherence to the rule of law is the basic principle on which a genuine democratic government must be built. A situation in which Nigerians are uncertain about the impartiality or legal soundness of judicial decisions undermines the confidence of the populace in democracy. The judiciary should truly be the last hope of the common man.
Nigeria, therefore, deserves judges who are fearless, honest and above suspicion.
Judges who are unable to maintain the high standards required of their calling should be encouraged to go into other occupations. Judges worldwide, by their training, are among the most educated, independent and respected professionals. They should not be any different in Nigeria. They must shield themselves from undue influence in their interaction with the larger society.
We commend the CJN for his words of wisdom and counsel to judges and lawyers, and for consulting with the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) on the conflicting judgments. INEC has had occasion to criticise judgements that tended to complicate the electoral process and reduce the trust of the populace in the ballot box.
The Chief Justice has declared that “judges must be able to hold the balance between order and chaos, harmony and violence, prosperity and poverty.” We cannot agree more.