Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The judiciary is the third arm of government in a democratic setting vested with the constitutional role of intervening in the inevitable disputes between persons or between government and its agencies.
In exercising its adjudicatory powers under section 6(6)(a) and (b) of the Constitution, the judiciary has successfully played its role in deepening Nigeria’s democracy with several landmark decisions.
Some of these inevitable contestations are in the areas of fundamental human rights, political issues, autonomy, self-determination and the control of economic resources.
In all of these, the courts have made radical pronouncements on some constitutional issues such as conduct of elections, impeachment procedures, revenue allocation, division of power, fundamental rights, political parties and local government, which have gone a long way in strengthening democracy in Nigeria.
On May 24, 2019, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment, held that the All Progressive Congress (APC) did not conduct valid primaries for the 2019 general election in Zamfara State. The court ruled that the APC and all its candidates gate-crashed the elections, having not conducted lawful primaries.
In a unanimous judgment by a five-member panel of justices, the apex court declared the first-runners up in the general election in Zamfara State as winners of all the offices earlier declared to have been won by the APC and its candidates.
Justice Paul Galinji, who read the judgment, held that all votes cast for the APC in the election amounted to wasted votes and efforts.
Accordingly, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidates who were the first-runners up were later sworn into office.
Dissatisfied with the judgment, the APC, on June 17, 2019, filed an application asking the court to review, amend, correct and/or set aside the consequential orders contained in it’s May 24, 2019, judgment.
However, ruling on the application on March 27, 2020, the Supreme Court, in a split decision of four to one, said it lacked jurisdiction to review its own judgment. Justice John Okoro, who read the majority judgment, said, by Order 8, Rule 16, of the Supreme Court, it had no jurisdiction under any guise to interfere with any judgment once delivered by the court.
He held that the APC’s application was an abuse of court process, incompetent and vexatious, because Order 8, Rule 16, was a clear and unambiguous law that prohibits it from going into a matter already decided.
Justice Okoro further held that the apex court could only go into a matter already decided to correct accidental errors and slips and not to sit as an appellate court on its own decision.
“Even, our forebears did not leave anyone in doubt that a Supreme Court judgment, once delivered, cannot be adjudicated upon in the form of appeal by the same court.
“Let me warn here that political parties must obey their own constitution and relevant laws and, where they fail or refuse to obey, the harmer of the court will always fall on them. It is the duty of court to always take decisions that will prevent anarchy in this country. Only serious matters must be brought before the Supreme Court,” Justice Okoro ruled.
In another judgment, the Supreme Court, on January 14, 2020, nullified the election of Emeka Ihedioha of the PDP as the governor of Imo State.
The unanimous judgment declared Hope Uzodinma of the APC as the winner of the March 9 governorship election in the state. Senator Uzodinma had argued that his votes from 388 polling units were excluded at the collation stage and that, if added, he was the winner of the election. He tendered some election materials, including documents said to be duplicates of the original election results.
On his part, Ihedioha and his political party, the PDP, asked the court to dismiss the appeal and affirm his election.
However, Justice Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, who read the unanimous judgment of the seven-man panel of the court, agreed that results in 388 polling units were unlawfully excluded during the collation of the final governorship election result in Imo State.
Justice Kekere-Ekun said, with the results from the 388 units added, Uzodinma polled a majority of the lawful votes and ought to have been declared the winner of the election by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
The judge did not provide the details of the new votes scored by each of the candidates after the addition of the results from the 388 polling units.
Consequently, she voided and set aside the declaration of lhedioha as the winner of the 2019 governorship election in the South-East state.
The court ordered that the certificate of return wrongly or unlawfully issued to lhedioha be immediately withdrawn by the INEC and a fresh one issued to Uzodinma as the elected governor of the state.
“Votes due to the appellant, Senator Hope Uzodinma, and the APC from 388 polling units were wrongly excluded from scores ascribed to the appellant (to them),” the justices ruled. “It is thereby ordered that the appellant’s votes from 388 polling units unlawfully excluded from the appellant’s vote declared shall be added and that the first respondent, Emeka Ihedioha, was not duly elected by a majority of lawful votes cast at the said election.”
“His return as the elected governor of Imo State is hereby declared null and void and accordingly set aside. It is hereby declared that the first appellant (Mr. Uzodinma) holds the majority of lawful votes cast at the governorship election held in Imo State on March 9, 2019.”
Not satisfied with the decision, Ihedioha and the PDP approached the court with an application for a review of its judgment and to restore him as the validly elected governor of Imo State.
However, the apex court, in a decision by a seven-man panel of justices led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, reinstated the judgment it gave on January 14, which declared Uzodinma as the validly elected governor of Imo State.
In the lead verdict that was delivered by Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, the apex court held that Ihedioha’s application to set aside the judgment that removed him from office lacked merit.
However, a member of the panel, Justice Centus Nweze, disagreed with the majority judgment and gave a dissenting opinion that allowed Ihedioha’s application.
In February 13, 2020, the Supreme Court sacked the governor-elect of Bayesla State, Senator David Lyon, and his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, who were jointly elected on the platform of the APC. The decision of the court was sequel to the appeal filed by the PDP, its governorship and deputy governorship candidates in the state, Senators Douye Diri and Lawrence Ewhruojakpo.
A five-member panel of the court, led by Justice Mary Peter-Odili, disqualified Degi-Eremienyo and ruled that it had rendered the joint ticket held by him and the governorship candidate a nulity.
Justice Ejembi Eko, who delivered the lead judgment, disqualified Degi-Eremienyo’s candidacy for presenting false information about his educational qualifications in his form CF 001 submitted to INEC as a candidate for the 2019 election.
The deputy governor-elect was said to have presented certificates with different names inconsistent with the name on the form CF 001 submitted to INEC. The court held that, since Degi-Eremienyo shared a joint ticket with the governor-elect, his disqualification invalidated their nomination by the APC.
Consequently, the court ordered INEC to immediately withdraw the certificate of return issued to them and a fresh one be issued to the party that secured the second highest number of votes and got the constitutional spread.
The Supreme Court further dismissed the application by the APC for a review of its February 13, 2020, udgment.
In a unanimous judgment delivered on February 27, 2020, Justice Slyvester Ngwuta said the decision of the court “was final in the real sense of the word, final, and no force can get this court to shift from its decision.”
It described the application as vexatious, frivilous and a gross abuse of court process.
Other areas of intervention of the judiciary in deepening the nation’s democracy were manifested in the case of Attorney-General, Lagos State, v. Attorney-General of the Federation, where the Supreme Court held as null and void the decision of the Federal Government to withhold statutory allocation due and payable to the Lagos State Government in respect of the 20 local governments. Before the decision of the Supreme Court on the matter, very serious tension was already generated between the Lagos State government, led as at that time by Chief Bola Tinubu, and the Federal Government, led by President Olusegun Obasanjo.
The Supreme Court declared the Electoral Act made by the National Assembly in 2001 as null and void in the case of Attorney-General of Abia State & 35 Ors v. Attorney-General of the Federation.
The Supreme Court, it could be noted, has become more assertive of the imperative of constitutional supremacy, particularly in the resolution of intergovernmental disputes and political contestations, a prominent aspect of political transition in Nigeria between 1999 and 2007.
In Attorney-General of Abia State & 2 Ors v Attorney-General of the Federation and 33 Ors (Revenue Monitoring case), the issue before the court was the constitutionality of the Local Government Revenue Monitoring Act passed by the National Assembly. The plaintiff states argued that the Act, which provided for direct disbursement of local government allocations from the federal account and monitoring of the process by federal authorities, amounted to undue interference with their powers over the matter of local government political and fiscal administration, as recognized under section 7, among others, of the Constitution.
The court upheld the case of the plaintiffs. It emphasized that legislative action, no matter how laudable, must be kept within constitutionally prescribed limits, because legislative powers and functions are “not at large.” Justice Tobi in the lead judgment emphasized the significance of the Supremacy Clause, which mandates all three arms of government to conform to the provisions of the Constitution. Referring to various dicta in Attorney-General of Ondo State v Attorney-General of the Federation and 35 Others (ICPC case), the court reiterated its support for the anti-corruption policy of the political branch. It, however, maintained that the initiative must be conducted within constitutionally sanctioned limits.
In conclusion, it could be seen from the above decisions that the judiciary has further preserved the fundamental objectives and directive principles of state policy, which are non-justiciable.
For instance, in the case of ICPC, the courts demonstrated the need to maintain peace, order and good governance when it refused to nullify the Act setting up the anti-corruption agency.
Justice Ogwuegbu, who delivered the judgment of the Supreme Court, was forthright to agree that the ICPC Act was an affront on the Principle of Federalism, he, however, found that it should be sacrificed in the overriding interest of good governance because “corrupt practices and abuse of power can, if not checked, threaten the peace, order and good governance of the country.”