By Tonnie Iredia
Section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (1999) provides that judicial proceedings should be conducted in public. If so, can the subsisting arrangement of allowing only a few people to watch proceedings in a courtroom be described as public? Some people would answer this question in the negative because the attendees are hardly representative of a typical Nigerian community.
Besides, some judges behave as if the court is a private entity.In 2015 for example, some journalists were arrested and detained for three hours on the order of a judge attached to a state High Court, in Ota, Ogun state. The detained Journalists had been deployed by different media organizations to cover two proceedings listed for hearing that day. Their offense was allegedly their failure to show their authorization by the court to cover the cases. The judge reportedly stated that the High Court, contrary to the impression of the media, was not a public place that could be entered without authorization.
The implication of the argument was that the Nigerian public was left in the dark about events in that court and perhaps in some others whose judges have a similar perception of a court system that is shielded from the people.
But why should events happening in any societal institution be made a secret to the same peoplefor whose sake the institution was set up and indeed, maintained by taxpayers’ money? Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution mandates the media to make all public authorities accountable to the people. How can the mandate be successfully handled if the same public authorities are able to empower themselves to bar the media from court rooms? The trend may have been encouraged by some old colonial convention but it can hardly be sustained for long because the judicial arm of government cannot be exempted from the constitutional directive that government as a whole should be accountable to the people.
Luckily, events of the last few years particularly those concerning politics and elections have pushed Nigeria to a junction where activities in the arm of government often described as the last hope of the common man can no longer be detached from the masses. The ‘winner-takes-it-all’ political system which Nigeria runs is naturally subjected to the principle of all is well that ends well, making it appear rational for contestants to employ whatever can win an election irrespective of approved rules for the game.
This explains the numerous strategies by politicians to buy their way to success especially by bribing state actors- election officials, security operatives and judges. The case of the latter is slightly more worrisome because at the end, no other lawful framework is available for reviewing final and binding judicial decisions that are sometimes jaundiced. People ought not to be left confused as to how such critical decisions were arrived at.
Whereas there are many judges who are quite diligent and forthright in the performance of their duties, a few have become so wealthy throughabuse of office. As the late Supreme Court legend, Kayode Esho once testified “the election tribunals were turning judges into billionaires.” To imagine that the said corruption is limited to the lower courts is wrong because as far back as 2005, Samson Uwaifo, another well-respected retired Justice of the Supreme Court had confirmed that corruption “had gradually crawled to the Higher Courts…” Revealing how this is done, Justice Stanley Shenko Alagoa said some judges collect bribe from politicians and traditional rulers to pervert the course of justice.
Chukwudifu Oputa another retired Supreme Court Justice discovered “dishonest lawyers who after charging their normal fees, charge extra for the judge.” Painfully,such criminal-minded judges, were according to Femi Falana (SAN) “not prosecuted but merely retired by the authorities on the recommendation of the National Judicial Council.”
Today, the general perception is that the image of the judiciary is far lower than the abominable testimonies of the past. If corruption in the Nigerian judiciary is so rampant as to warrant public apprehension, why not embrace the open justice principle which requires that judicial proceedings be conducted in a transparent manner; and with the oversight of the people? With this question in mind, there appears to be no better time than now to attain open justice by televising the proceedings of election petitions.
The President of the Nigerian Bar Association Yakubu Maikyau, SAN,illuminated the perspective with his argument that such”live broadcasts will give citizens the opportunity to follow the proceedings, have better knowledge of the facts and an understanding of the reasoning behind decisions of the courts in those matters.” It will in earnest help to reduce the tension generated by what people see as a lack of openness and transparency in Nigerian elections especially those held in the country on February 25 and March 18, 2023.
Of course, those who normally profit from election rigging would put up their usual argument that Nigeria is not ripe to adopt the technology for beaming television signals from courtrooms to homes. Yet, in the last two decades, Nigeria homes have been watching live telecast of other events especially those sponsored by politicians and political office-holders. Even before voting day, many judicial decisions concerning elections are magically resolved to the extent that both parties in a case end up claiming to have won.
Nigerians would for instance love to watch the process which converted a non-aspirant to a candidate in the last senatorial elections. In fact, many would have keenly watched how our judiciary collated votes in a previous election that made a governorship candidate to score more votes than the number of persons who voted at the election. Television signals would probably have exposed what influenced courts to accept disparities between recorded votes and accredited voters where accreditation and voting were simultaneous.
If to televise court proceedings is new to Nigerians, it is not to other African countries that follow global realities. Ghana introduced live telecast of court proceedings in 2012, that is, more a decade ago. In truth, it is Nigeria that should have adopted the strategy a year earlier when Hilary Clinton while submitting the Department of State’s Country report on Human Rights practices for 2011 stated that “Nigerian judges frequently failed to appear for trials, often because they were pursuing other sources of income.”
Unfortunately, Nigeria discountenanced the report thereby remaining behind others.
South Africa is probably the best example in the Continent that has fully embraced open justice with admirable innovations and progressive interpretations. This has helped the country to accept that the workings of the justice system ought not to be shielded away from the public domain. The cases of Mamabolo (2001) and Shinga(2007) established the point that the right to public courts ought not to be seen as belonging only to litigants but to the world at large.
Another persuasive pointmade in the 2014 case of MultiChoice (Pty) was that because courts exercise public power over citizens, it is important for their proceedings to be open so as to encourage public understanding as well as accountability. As a result, people should be empowered to discuss, endorse, criticize, applaud or castigate the conduct of courts which in the first instance belong to them.
It is certainly unacceptable that in Nigeria, litigants are able to use the courts to win elections, which is probably why most aggrieved persons continue their pursuit for justice until the case is heard by the last and highest court.
Thus, many who are made to accept the decisions of the Apex Court are not necessarily persuaded by the rulings. Accordingly, it is simplistic to label such persons as bad losers because they lost to extra-judicial influences. If anyone is to object to the call for live telecast of court proceedings especially those concerning politics and elections, such objections should not come from judges and lawyers whose conduct necessitated the call. It is in the interest of all lawyers and judges to conscientiously support the call which can among many other benefits, protect diligent actors in the legal system and uphold the integrity of the Nigerian Bar and Bench.