Ever since Nigerian politicians and election officials engineered unbelievable strategies for manipulating the outcomes of elections, the judiciary has struggled to maintain some form of consistency in interpreting electoral laws. Consequently, the independence and integrity of the judiciary in resolving election disputes have been questioned by a significant segment of our population.
Nigeria is in a judicial tight corner. With the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) serving as a prejudiced election umpire, final decisions on disputed elections have been shifted to election petition tribunals, appeal court judges, and Supreme Court justices. In a most recent case, the Supreme Court was approached to adjudicate on the contested governorship election in Imo State. The decision handed by the court last week has left many people bemused at best and outraged at worst.
The court’s decision was most unexpected for two reasons. Many people thought the position of governor of Imo State had been settled with the swearing in of Chief Emeka Ihedioha more than eight months ago. No one, not even the best judicial minds, had anticipated that a candidate who came fourth in the election conducted in March 2019 would be catapulted to a position of advantage to replace the sitting governor. However, those familiar with the uncertainties of the judicial process would tell you there are two possible outcomes facing people who approach a court to resolve a dispute – their case will be either upheld or dismissed.
Prior to last week, the new governor, Hope Uzodinma, had no hope and chance in hell that he would be declared governor through a fiat. His emergence, surprising as it is, is the outcome of the Supreme Court judgment that many of the state’s citizens are still finding difficult to digest. Now, the people of Imo State are upset that their choice of governor has been invalidated by the Supreme Court through some baffling mathematical wizardry. The implication of the debacle in Imo State is that, in Nigerian elections, today’s winners could become tomorrow’s losers. If in doubt, ask Ihedioha who is now inconsolable. While INEC can declare winners instantly and issue certificates of return, that action can only be regarded as a pyrrhic victory, a temporary triumph that could be overturned by a higher authority such as the Supreme Court.
Surely, the Supreme Court is not a court of mathematicians. It is not a court that enjoys the insights and expertise of renowned mathematicians such as the late Chike Obi. This is why many people have been asking for answers and explanations on how the Supreme Court justices arrived at a decision that has the potential to disrupt and imperil the electoral process in Nigeria. How, for goodness sake, did the Supreme Court reach a decision that antagonised a majority of citizens and placed the court in a ludicrous position as an unbiased arbiter of disputed election outcomes?
Historically, this is not the first time the Supreme Court would make election-related judgment that would stupefy a nation. For example, the Supreme Court ruled in an agonisingly close but split decision that the travesty that passed off as presidential election on April 21, 2007, was won by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. Expectedly, the judgment was greeted by public indignation. Everyone questioned how a majority of Supreme Court justices overruled flawless evidence of malpractices that blemished that election on the basis of legal technicalities. Many people were staggered by that decision. Other people also wondered whether the apex court had indeed jammed the wheels of justice against an object hidden in a dark corner.
All of these have raised pertinent questions about the integrity and ethical conduct of members of the judiciary. Improper conduct by members of the judiciary has always been an issue of national significance. Some people are now asking whether the quality of judges and justice in Nigeria has diminished owing to growing evidence of discrepancies in decisions relating to election petitions. Not surprisingly, a number of judges have been bundled out of office because of the dodgy way they interpreted election laws, which suggested they may have compromised their positions. Among members of the Bar and Bench, improper conduct or an infraction that undermines professional integrity is deemed to be a hanging offence.
These are not the best of times for the judiciary. The moral uprightness of high court judges and now Supreme Court justices is being queried on a regular basis. It is important to clarify that not every member of the judiciary is corrupt. In our society, Supreme Court justices are generally perceived as men and women of high integrity. They are respected and valued because they occupy positions of trust. Supreme Court justices are also seen as the conscience of the nation and the protector of less privileged members of our society.
In many parts of the world, Supreme Court justices represent the fountainhead of justice. In everything they do, they are required to reflect the virtues of the high office they occupy. In order for Supreme Court justices to uphold the highest standards of judicial service, they must be incorruptible. And they must not engage in politics. Where the rest of society embraces corruption, they must show that they are the symbols of hope and impartiality. Unfortunately, what we wish is not always what we get from the judiciary.
Under our democratic system, politicians are not expected to interfere in the judicial process in order to maintain the independence of the judiciary. Similarly, judges are expected to resist any temptation to engage in political decisions that could tarnish the image of the judiciary. Of course, there are excellent judicial officers in Nigeria. The knowledge and skills acquired by these fine gentlemen and women have been recognised by their peers at home and overseas.
For all their expertise in judicial matters, for all their knowledge and understanding of the law, in spite of the high social status they occupy, some judges have, by their shameful conduct, damaged the image of their profession and the reputation of their peers. Some high court judges, including those who serve in the election petition tribunals, have continued to serve the nation an odd form of justice, the brand of justice flavoured with political interference and other monetary sweeteners.
As I argued in a previous essay, to tolerate a corrupt judiciary is to allow the blind to lead the blind. When leaders and followers are strapped with blinkers that obstruct their ability to see clearly, everyone would most likely end up in a ditch. The Nigerian judiciary is broken. This is a statement of fact acknowledged by no fewer than four former Chief Justices of the Federation, some high court judges, and the leadership of the Nigerian Bar Association. It is time the judiciary were reformed. It is time that Nigeria fixed the endemic corruption and moral carelessness that have undermined the integrity of an important institution of our society.
Allegations of corruption in the judiciary are hurtful because they expose the judiciary to public ridicule. This is why, any action by a judge that undermines the professional integrity of members of the judiciary, must not be tolerated.