The trouble with the Nigerian judiciary today is not unconnected to the Nigerian politician and the politics of the Nigerian state. Either in the manner in which the bench is both deliberately or benignly denied necessary funding to enable its members function as effective members of the realm or in the routine acculturation of both the bar and the bench into political issues, the judiciary is at a losing end. Directly or indirectly, the fate of the Nigerian judiciary will be determined for good or ill, by the Nigerian politician.
After so many years, even decades of military rule, the last two generations of Nigerian politicians continue to show themselves up as incapable of appreciating much less accept the norms of democratic practice. In their bid to subvert these norms, politicians have turned the judiciary into the willing tool of their transgressive conduct. On March 4, Nigerians woke up to news report that Adams Oshiomhole, the chair of the All Progressives Congress that had been locked in a protracted battle of supremacy with Godwin Obaseki, his erstwhile protégé and governor of Edo State where he was governor until about four years ago, had been suspended from office by a Federal High Court sitting in Abuja.
The suspension came out of the blue even while it was well-known that a faction of the APC in Edo State with which Oshiomole had been contending claimed it had suspended him (for anti-party activities), the very plank on which the decision to suspend him was based by the Abuja court. But in about 24 hours after the announcement of Oshiomhole’s suspension and his party secretariat was put under lock and key, the suspension order was lifted by a judge of the Federal High Court in Kano, another court of coordinate status as the one in Abuja. In the context of the back and forth between Oshiomhole and Obaseki and their supporters, both the order and counter-order, respectively, from Abuja and Kano, appeared procured to many Nigerians who went on to read them from the refracted lens of partisan politics. That the judiciary had to be dragged into settling the unseemly score between two politicians, a godfather and his estranged godson, should be worrisome to Nigerians. It points to the fact that the so-called last hope of the common man, an arm of government that should not only act but also be seen as independent, has been corralled into the miry trenches of Nigerian politics where nothing and nobody is without their price. Every other week if not day, something happens to undermine the hitherto privileged and exalted status of the judiciary. Before the unfolding melodrama of the suspension and reinstatement of Adams Oshiomhole as chair of the APC, the polity was yet struggling to make sense of the apparent conundrum of the sacking of David Lyon of the APC, the governor-elect of Bayelsa State and his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo and the transfer of their mandate by the Supreme Court to their Peoples Democratic Party rivals, Duoye Diri and Lawrence Ewhrujakporboth, on the eve, indeed within 24 hours, of their inauguration. The grounds for this unprecedented pronouncement that sought to remedy a pre-election infraction was the affirmation of a forgery charge preferred against Lyons’ running mate. Nigerians could neither make head or tail of the judgement which chose to hold a principal liable for a liability caused by his deputy. This position is clearly at variance from the one that rejected the succession of James Faleke as governor-elect after Abubakar Audu’s sudden death in 2015. The APC successfully replaced Faleke with Yahaya Bello that was not on the ballot. Earlier in January, the Supreme Court had sacked Emeka Ihedioha as governor of Imo State and ordered the immediate swearing-in of Senator Hope Uzodinma who had come fourth in the election that threw Ihedioha up as governor. Even while the court would appear to have granted the relief sought by Senator Uzodinma and assuaged the damage caused by the unexplainable exclusion of votes from over 80 polling centres by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, it nevertheless created another water-pass-garri conundrum: the overall vote tally after all excluded votes had been counted was higher than the number of voters accredited to participate in the election. This was not simply an issue of flawed mathematics, it portrayed the entire judicial process as contrived, a situation not helped by the barely concealed partisan utterances, disguised in the view of many Nigerians as a prophesy, by a controversial Father Ejike Mbaka. It was against this background that many see the Supreme Court’s decision on Bayelsa State as a way to ameliorate for the PDP the damage done in Imo State. Whether true or false, what is now undeniable is the common perception among Nigerians that judicial decisions can now be procured by the highest bidder and the courts, incorporating the bar and the bench, have taken over the place of the electorates as determinants of electoral victories.
So-called senior lawyers have become overnight celebrities and multimillionaires, taking and vending briefs from one court to another, acting as go-between for political litigants and judges, in a bid to restore or overturn the will of the electorate. The same lawyers who stand for the APC today could be standing for the PDP or what-not tomorrow, changing sides and arguments in a heartbeat without angst or scruples. In the last two or three cycles of elections, the judiciary has become a key player in the determination of electoral outcomes. Every politician now knows that an election cannot be considered won or lost until the courts have said so, as the David Lyon case has unequivocally demonstrated. The gradual but steady silencing of the voice of the people, the usurpation of their will by the courts, has done the judiciary more incalculable damage than good. The shaming of the judiciary, their exposure to the harmful influence of politicians who randomly finger and expose them in corruption scandals, as Nigerians witnessed in 2017 when senior members of the bench were busted and accused of massive corruption, follows the poor work and living conditions of members of the bench. Poorly paid and compelled to overwork in conditions that are at least five decades behind what are to be found elsewhere, judicial personnel become susceptible to extraneous influences. Even the appointment of judges, as was the case two weeks ago when the person most qualified to be the chief judge, was rejected by both the governor and state assembly of Cross River State on account of her ethnicity, is now highly politicised. It would be difficult if not impossible for her replacement not to feel obliged to both the governor and the state assembly. It’s time to redeem the judiciary.