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The Supreme Court as the Scapegoat


Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Muhammed

“…they amended the Constitution and gave the Supreme Court the final say in governorship election matters. The politicians had, due to their inability to accept defeat, overburdened the Supreme Court.

Image: Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Muhammed

The current fad in town is bashing the judiciary, more specifically, bashing the Supreme Court. All because some desperate politicians didn’t get the results they expected from the Supreme Court’s interventions in some electoral matters. To make matters worse, some lawyers who should know better have become willing tools in the hands of desperate and unconscionable politicians.

Under the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court is the highest court in Nigeria. There is a school of thought that suggests that the work load of the Supreme Court is too much as a result of the fact that just about any matter can be litigated up to the Supreme Court. 

The court is therefore bogged down by a lot of cases that have no business being adjudicated by the Supreme Court. Just think of a landlord and tenant case that finds its way to the apex court. The Supreme Court should be a court of policy. Maybe it is time we borrowed from the United States where presently no matter goes to the United States Supreme Court as of right. 

Any litigant that wants his matter ventilated before the United States Supreme Court must petition the court and a minimum of four justices must vote in favour of hearing the case before it can be taken. That way, the court is also able to determine its docket size.

Previously, litigation revolving around the election of a Governor of a State ended at the Court of Appeal. The Court of Appeal handed down a number of decisions which were not favourable to the ruling PDP and with its overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and in the different States Houses of Assembly they amended the Constitution and gave the Supreme Court the final say in governorship election matters. The politicians had, due to their inability to accept defeat, overburdened the Supreme Court by the additional jurisdiction.

As usual with the politicians, a judgment is only good when it is in their favour. The decisions in the Rivers and Cross River States have generated undue brouhaha. In these two States the APC lost in the Supreme Court. There then followed accusations of corruption against the Justices of the Supreme Court. 

The defeated governorship candidate of the APC in Rivers State, Mr. Dakuku Peterside, did not pull any punches in making grave allegations impugning the integrity of the Justices of the Supreme Court regarding their decision in the Rivers State Governorship election appeal. The Chairman of the APC, Mr. John Odigie, called for a probe of the judiciary.

The more worrisome of these Supreme Court bashing is the attitude of some lawyers. Some of them went as far as suggesting that the judgment was incurably bad, even when the court had not given its reasons for their ruling. There is nothing wrong with a robust criticism of the decisions of courts. 

But for lawyers, I would expect a well-considered criticism which can be done in a law journal or even a newspaper. The writer in that case will also open himself up for rejoinders by others who may agree or disagree with the positions canvassed. Such an essay will thoroughly analyse the judgment and give reasons why it falls short of expectations.

As for the various allegations against the Supreme Court made by the politicians, they are mostly based on conjectures. Of course, if any of them has any evidence of any sort, that will withstand any scrutiny, they should lodge a formal complaint with the appropriate authority. It is not fair to tar the entire Supreme Court bench with the brush of corruption without any valid basis, especially when the affected Justices are not able to reply to the vitriols thrown their way.

It is one thing to say that the Supreme Court is wrong, for as a former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, Robert Jackson said: “We are not final because we are infallible, but we are infallible only because we are final.” It is also one thing to accuse the Supreme Court of being reactionary or timorous and pandering to the executive, but it is a totally different proposition to go after the Justices’ integrity.

The politicians should do well not to drag the hallowed institution of the Supreme Court in the mud in their insatiable thirst for power. As far as I am concerned, there was no need amending the Constitution to give the Supreme Court jurisdiction over governorship election matters. The Justices are already overburdened. If the same people who gave them the jurisdiction are no longer satisfied they should reverse themselves.

Rather than look for a scape goat in the judiciary, the politicians in authority should ensure that elections are basically free and fair and devoid of violence. How can it be explained or excused that for instance, in senatorial election reruns, there will be so much brigandage and lawlessness? Surely it should not be too difficult to deploy appropriate security to ensure a free and fair election, thereby leaving little or nothing for the intervention of the judiciary.

Ikenna Okoli, FCIArb., LLM (London)  

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