By Tonnie Iredia
Nigerian politicians are probably the freest in the world as they now and again do whatever pleases them with no one able to call them to order. Anytime a judge is assaulted or being abused in the country, it is always the handiwork of a politician or someone acting on his behalf. The only politician that does not abuse a judge is the one who secures a favourable court judgment.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian politician is that citizen who is always able to recruit the highest and most expensive lawyers known as Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN). Why then are these so-called most senior lawyers never able to counsel their clients to appreciate that our laws require that judges be accorded ample respect? In Nigeria as in many other countries of the world, any person who lowers someone in the estimation of people by disparaging him in his office, profession or calling is said to have breached the provisions of the law of defamation.
Nigerian politicians do this regularly to our judges either in writing which is libel or verbally which is slander, yet nothing happens to such an offending politician. Again, although it is seditious to bring into hatred or excite disaffection against the administration of justice in a country, our powerful politicians can publicly impugn the integrity of judges and get away with it.
The latest trend which influenced this article concerns contempt of court involving politicians who personally abuse judges, misrepresent court proceedings; openly accuse judges of partiality and also author publications which are prejudicial to fair trial. Anytime a Nigerian journalist gets close to doing any of these, he is immediately summoned and dealt with, but if it is repeatedly done by a politician, nothing happens making it look like our politicians have some form of immunity.
For ease of reference let us undertake a review of the reactions of politicians to the decisions of election tribunals concerning the last general elections in two states in the country and appreciate the posture of the average Nigerian politician. In Rivers State, the government acted as if it was itself another tribunal as it published official comments during the hearing of the election petition. For example, as soon as the military gave evidence at the tribunal which did not favour the governor, his special adviser on media, Opunabo Inko-Tariah issued a press statement to condemn the evidence. The statement similarly attacked the “unfavourable” testimony of Charles Okoye, the head of the INEC monitoring team in the state who also claimed the elections were marred by violence and intimidation
At the end of the hearing, the tribunal annulled the election. This time it was the governor himself who addressed the people of the state. Among other things he said: “despite the woeful failure of the Petitioners to discharge the burden of proof with respect to their contradictory, wild and false allegations against the conduct of the election, the State Governorship Election Petition Tribunal nullified my election on the basis of INEC’s alleged infraction of its administrative guidelines on the use of card readers.” Any visitor to the country or foreigners who heard Governor Wike’s address would obviously be confused.
First, it would be difficult to understand why such a statement would be made after the ruling of a court of competent jurisdiction. How can a party to a case say that his opponent failed woefully to prove an allegation which a court had found to be true-is such an allegation still false, wild and contradictory? Would it not have been more decent and in line with the rule of law for such arguments to be raised during appeal or did Wike whom we hear is a lawyer constitute himself into an appellate court? If the statement was made to the court of public opinion, the author probably discountenanced the earlier report by local and international observers, that the Rivers governorship election, witnessed widespread violence before and after the elections.
In Taraba State, where the incumbent governor suffered the same fate, similarly worded but unnecessary inflammatory statements were made. On his part, the Chief of Staff to the Governor, Rebo Usman, imagined that the election tribunal “derailed from its constitutional responsibilities and “dived into something else” adding that the tribunal ruling “plunged the state into chaos which led to wanton destruction of lives and property.” Unfortunately, Usman did not reveal who organized the chaos thereby imputing that the people of Taraba State are yet to know that rash mob action is an uncivilized approach to an unfavourable judgment.
Otherwise, the people might extend the chaos beyond their state if a higher court confirms the earlier judgment. Indeed, there would likely be similar chaos organized the other political party if the higher court reinstates the governor. From this argument, it is obvious that if the current posture of gangsterism by politicians who lose court cases is not checked, many innocent souls would be lost while the politicians keep their own children in safe haven in Europe and America. Our politicians should therefore apply restraint to their tendency to always instigate other people’s children into violence once an election petition is not in their favour. They should at the same time allow our judges to do their work and go on appeal where necessary.
Against this backdrop, we consider as appropriate and timely last Wednesday’s publicly expressed concern by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, about attacks unleashed on judges by politicians following the judgments delivered by some election petitions tribunals in the country. Calling on governors to be more sensitive to the plight of judges, the CJN aptly said that it was not enough to attack judges over corruption and bribery allegations and look away when “thugs enter courts to beat judges, tear court processes and bomb the courts to prevent the delivery of some judgments.” Lets us always remember this writer’s often quoted statement that in every case of corruption, there are at least two sides, the giver and the taker. Politicians who give cannot morally chastise judges who take. Both are wrong.