By Tonnie Iredia
24 hours to the assumption of office of Justice Aloma Muktar as the new Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), this column opined that it would be difficult to stop justice for sale in Nigeria. Some readers may have at the time felt that such a ‘pessimistic’ piece on the eve of a new era was not fair. They have a point especially against the backdrop of Aloma’s personal sterling qualities.
It is indeed difficult to forget the last time Aloma shone like a star when she and two other progressive Justices of the Supreme Court – Oguntade and Onnoghen – rejected the infamous 2007 Presidential election.
But to assume that all will be well as soon as Justice Muktar took over the mantle of leadership of the judiciary is rather simplistic. This is because there have always been and there still are many judges in Nigeria who are less than worthy.
Here, it is instructive to recall that although the real beneficiary of that fake election of 2007, the late President Yar’Adua himself faulted the election process, as many as 4 Supreme Court Justices including the CJN did not see the glaring defect.
Why? Whether the rationalization of the disposition of the pro-establishment justices by Wikileaks is accurate or not, it is a notorious fact that the Nigerian judiciary has judges at all levels who are materially compromised with ease. In other words, there is not much that our new CJN can do concerning the culture of justice for sale in Nigeria because a tree as our people say cannot make a forest.
To make matters worse, the problem which we all imagined was restricted to judicial officers at the lower levels has since spread upwards especially in matters of elections. Oh yes, it was the Sokoto Governorship election petition which pitched the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Ayo Salami against the then CJN, Justice Katsina-Alu that put the National Judicial Council (NJC) in its present state of disarray.
But has our Court of Appeal learnt anything from history? Going by the handling of the Adamawa Governorship election petition, this is a question that many are likely to answer in the negative and we cannot blame them because the story of the Adamawa case is not only easy to tell, it is also as comical as many episodes of the old popular television court drama – Icheoku.
First, there was a governorship election in the state on February 04, 2012 which according to the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) was won by the incumbent Governor, Admiral Murtala Nyako. Second, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) presented a petition to the election tribunal challenging the said victory of the incumbent. Third, the tribunal upheld the declaration of INEC in favour of Nyako. Fourth, the opposition immediately filed an appeal against the ruling of the tribunal in accordance with the law.
But rather than deal with the case expeditiously in view of Section 285 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, which provides that an appeal from a decision of an election tribunal must be heard and disposed off within 60 days from the date of the judgment of the tribunal, the Court of Appeal kept mute and did nothing. At the end of August 2012, when the case had become over-ripe for hearing; for as long as 2 weeks, the ACN alerted the nation on the grave implications of the failure of the Court of Appeal to act. Again, nothing was done.
On September 18, 2012 when the deadline for handling the case was only 4days away, the opposition frantically petitioned the NJC alleging the obvious that the Court of Appeal was at the verge of allowing itself to be used to fraudulently win the election.
72 hours to the deadline, the CJN reportedly intervened and directed the Appeal Court to do its job. A panel which was then hurriedly constituted arrived the state capital-Yola- 48hours to the deadline. The next day, that is, 24hours to the deadline, the panel sat, wrote and delivered a judgment in a manner akin to how decisions affecting some local communities are made and pronounced by their Igwes in the famous African magic series.
The Adamawa case therefore appears unfortunate. That the Court had to be compelled to begin the process of playing the role for which it was set up must have sadly put 2 quick thoughts in the minds of people. The first is that the judges were acting a script. The second is that the Court of Appeal was yet to recover from its recent dilemma. There is even the joke making the rounds now, that our Court of Appeal lacks leadership and direction.
It is a great pity that whenever our nation takes positive steps to address its problems, there are usually some societal institutions and their operatives who always thwart any such a design. For instance, before now, the nation faced the difficult issue of prolonged election petitions which often distracted elected office holders from good governance.
Thus the decision to strictly adhere to the limit of 60 days imposed by the constitution makes sense. But it obviously does not make sense for either the court or the defendant to use delay tactics to prevent the case from being heard. For our Courts to throw out a case after 60 days irrespective of the cause of the delay may meet the letter of the law. It would however not meet the spirit of the law.
Accordingly, the Supreme Court must find a way of ensuring that justice particularly in election matters is not only done but seen by the average citizen to have been done. Otherwise, if Nigerians resort to political violence as a self help option, let the judiciary not exculpate itself from blame.