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What is our Court of Appeal saying?

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Tonnie Iredia

In a zero-sum political system where the winner takes all, there is a tendency for litigants to use every weapon to fight for electoral victory. However, the only valid weapon is the judiciary which explains the large number of election petitions at the end of each election in the country. In other words, many candidates in our elections prefer to follow the due process of law for ventilating their grievances. But quite often, many of them and their political parties are left with no option but to accept the decisions of the judiciary without understanding them.

Even members of the public find some of the decisions so astonishing that they merely attempt to rationalize them. But then, we need to urgently dissuade many people from losing faith in our justice delivery system. My mentor and uncle, Ajayi Edobor, a court clerk of old, that I occasionally refer to in this column is one of such frustrated citizens. He is always so dissatisfied with the explanation of what I am able to garner from court judgments in Nigeria. Frankly, I must confess, I am usually unable to answer many of his numerous follow-up questions to his main poser: what is the court saying?

Uncle Ajayi is no doubt one of our citizens who point to how unreasonable our judicial system appears to look like. He once referred me to the case of Rotimi Amaechi who became governor of Rivers state without anyone consciously voting for him.  The people had voted for Celestine Omehia who was the candidate presented for the election by the then ruling party. Omehia who won the election was removed and Amaechi was made governor by the Judiciary because it was proved that Amaechi was the rightful person who ought to have contested the election.

Now, uncle Ajayi’s poser was this: could it be that the people who voted for Omehia, the real contestant who was declared elected by INEC imagined that it was Amaechi’s name and photograph they saw while voting? The answer to the question throws ample light on the difference between what the courts say and what our people believe. Even if the court by its rules, is not wrong, the reality is that the court does not exist for its own sake but for the sake of the people making it obvious that the real function of our courts is to help solve identified societal problems.

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One major Nigerian problem is poorly conducted elections which is the handiwork of unscrupulous election personnel, security operatives and politicians. When such problems get to the judiciary, which is reputed to be the fountain of justice and the last hope of the common man, our people expect solutions, not convoluted technicalities. At the end of the last Osun state governorship election, one of the parties alleged that the returning officer connived with its opponent to cancel some votes to thwart its own clear victory.

The election tribunal held that because the returning officer was not empowered to cancel votes, his cancellations were unlawful. It therefore returned victory to the real winner. In upturning the verdict of the tribunal, the Court of Appeal said one of the judges in the tribunal was absent in court on some days; but said nothing about the real societal problem – is a returning officer empowered to cancel votes? If not, the court, should stop officials who are smuggled into our election process as hatchet-men and champions of inconclusive elections. We needn’t go beyond the Court of Appeal to effect this. No need for circumlocution!

However, we have a few Nigerians who always find time to succinctly remind our courts of societal expectations from them. One such group, ‘Access to Justice’ a judicial advocacy group, told the Court of Appeal, the other day that its judgment in the case of former Chief Justice Onnoghen and the Code of Conduct Tribunal, CCT, came too late to be of any value. For the first few months of the year, there was palpable tension over weighty allegations against the then Chief Justice amidst an obviously contrived process. At the end of the case, the Court of Appeal condemned what the CCT did but argued that events had overtaken the case.

The opinion of the ‘Access to Justice ‘ group was that “had the decision of the Court of Appeal been delivered sooner, at a time when it could have mattered, it would have represented a timely intervention required, at that time, to meet the exigencies of the situation in the tribunal. It could have halted the travesty and charade that was being played out by the CCT, under the guise of a trial. The group regretted that the Court of Appeal rendered “itself moot, out of reckoning, out of service and out of reach.” So, who got justice in the case – Onnoghen, the CCT, or society? If no one, perhaps there is no difference between submitting litigations to the courts or to our universities for academic research. The findings of our scholars might not have taken longer to come; and the researchers may not have blamed others for the delay.

In the last one week, the Court of Appeal sitting as an election tribunal to handle cases arising from the last presidential election has said certain things capable of several interpretations. This time, one of the issues at stake was whether or not a particular member of the panel should step down so that a party in the case at hand may have faith in the court. The petitioner in the case claimed it had cause to suspect the likelihood of bias on the part of the identified panelist. The Court held that actual bias was not proved which was not the complaint. It also opined that persons who were alleged to be likely to influence the judge were neither among the plaintiffs nor were they listed as witnesses. Do people have to be so listed before they can have capacity to influence? Honestly, many people are yet to understand what the court was saying

For the people to understand our courts, they must speak as at when due just as what they say must be easy for the ordinary man to understand; they must deal with the substantive issues before them so that the new trend which puts technical justice behind the front burner can make sense to us all. Judging by today’s flow of information, it is not only the conduct of our elections that is problematic in Nigeria, there is also the issue of too many quacks among our politicians; while some are said to be ex-convicts, others allegedly have dubious academic, age and mental certificates. If we use technical justice to down-play these ills, the nation cannot find visionary leaders that can formulate and implement development projects that will redress Nigeria’s stunted growth. Among other things, we need a proactive judiciary at all levels.

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