Time was when the judiciary commanded the respect of all and sundry in the Nigerian society, and its pronouncements were seen and received by many as something akin to vox dei.
Indeed, nothing mirrors the alleged loss of sheen, innocence and integrity by the judiciary like the recent á la carte judgments dished out by courts of coordinate jurisdictions across the country.x
No thanks to buccaneering politicians, who have extended their macabre dance to the hallowed chambers of the courts, and leaving on them, indelible stains that have sullied the pristine and unblemished toga of the judiciary.
It would be recalled that in recent times, courts of coordinate jurisdiction, in a number of political cases, issued conflicting and counteracting interim orders directing leaders of political parties to either vacate or resume office, and also ordering the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to recognise one political aspirant or the other as a party’s flag bearer for forthcoming elections. Most of the courts issuing the interim orders were remote, geographically, to the places where the disputes arose.
It was against this backdrop that the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko, summoned chief judges of six states over conflicting and counteracting interim orders by judges in their domains. Affected states are Rivers, Kebbi, Cross River, Anambra, Jigawa and Imo.
In a statement, the CJN’s media aide, Aharuka Isah, said the summon was “a prelude to the broader probe by the NJC to explain what warranted the issuance of conflicting orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction in their domains.”
However, the summon has been described by stakeholders in the nation’s judicial system as one violating the doctrine of independence and autonomy.
It was also said to promote the false notion that judges are individually accountable to chief judges, while also promoting the idea that chief judges can make broad policies on how cases should be decided in certain cases on the ground that the chief judge would be held to account if individual judges do not live up to particular standards.x
Access to Justice, a justice advocacy group, frowned at the action of the CJN because, according to it, the judiciary is an independent branch of government, and judges too, are decisionally independent of one another, and not accountable to their chief judges for decisions that they give, or orders they make.
While the group said it was pleased to note that the CJN took proactive steps to address an insidious and portentous threat to constitutional democracy, and has not followed a laid-back and reactive complaint system favoured by the National Judicial Council’s disciplinary system before interrogating the actions of the implicated judges, who have made the conflicting orders, it advised that the inquiry launched by the CJN ought to occur with the affected judges themselves.
Convener, Access to Justice, Joseph Otteh said: “The CJN as Chair of the National Judicial Council, not as Chief Justice of Nigeria, may interrogate the question whether orders made by specific judges satisfy the judicial standards and criteria required before such orders are made. But that inquiry must occur with the affected judges themselves.
“It is unfortunate that Nigeria’s judiciary, after several years of trying to straighten out itself, and in spite of its dishonourable history with using the judicial platform to engage in proxy political warfare, is still grappling with the same issues in 2021, even well before the 2023 transitional elections get underway.
“This is further evidence that all is not well with the judiciary, notwithstanding efforts to whitewash its image, and that it will require far more efforts and greater commitment to truly transform it into a dependable institution and vehicle of justice in Nigeria.”
For constitutional lawyer and lecturer at the Lagos State University (LASU), Prof. Mike Ikhariale, the scenario unfolding in the judiciary with respect to conflicting and ridiculous judicial pronouncements on political matters simply confirms that Nigeria has fallen for state capturers, with courts now operating at the behest of politicians instead of the constitution.x
A professor of law at Bayero University, Kano, Mamman Lawan, also bemoaned the situation as one that “ridicules the judicial system.” He noted that the fact that we see it often in political cases show that some of our judges have been pocketed by the political class.
“In a situation like this, law loses its functional value and everything is left to the whims and caprices of politicians. Society then becomes lawless and consequently disorderly,” he added.
Lawan said that the NJC must look into the situation and address it squarely, with erring judges disciplined according to law, as the abuse of judicial power, which the situation represents, is not only inimical to the legal system, but dangerous to the society.
The former Director General of the Nigeria Institute for Advanced Legal Studies (NIALS), Prof. Epiphany Azinge (SAN) viewed the churning out of ex parte orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction as a grim reminder of the dark days leading to the emergence of the Interim Government.
“What we have seen so far in the matter of Prince Uche Secondus and the impasse at the PDP does not present the judiciary in good light at all. Gradually, it is bordering on judicial rascality, or I dare say impunity. The regulating authority must step in forthwith and put a stop to this politically-induced forum shopping for ex parte Orders. At times like this, one is not proud to be called a lawyer. Public confidence in our judiciary must not be allowed to wane again, not after what appeared to be wholesale cleansing of the Augean stable. The impression in the public space again is that the judiciary has been compromised, and is ready to do the bidding of the executive across the divide. Wherein lies the independence of the Judiciary? Where is the effect of the much-touted judicial autonomy?” Azinge asked.
Jibrin Samuel Okutepa (SAN) described as embarrassing the situation playing out in respect of the PDP leadership crisis, which has seen three different contradictory rulings by courts of coordinate jurisdiction.x
Okutepa said the developments were antithetical to the actualisation of the just society and independent judiciary Nigerians aspired to, and ran contrary to everything that the law profession teaches.
He, however, stressed that before putting the blame at the feet of the judges, lawyers must look inwards and call out members, most of whom are senior members of the Bar, who continue to yield themselves to be used as willing tools by politicians to wantonly abuse the judicial process.
Okutepa said: “These actions contravene the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007 (RPC), especially the cardinal Rule 1 of the RPC, which requires a lawyer to uphold and observe the rule of law, promote and foster the cause of justice, maintain a high standard of professional conduct, and not engage in any conduct which is unbecoming of a legal practitioner.
“While the condemnation of these unethical actions by affected members of both the Bar and Bench is commendable, I think the situations requires much more than mere summoning and issuing statements of condemnation. The judges and the lawyers involved in these unwholesome and unethical conduct and pollution of the stream of justice are not unknown gunmen. They are known judges and known lawyers with known rules of professional conduct. I call on the Chief Justice of Nigeria as the chairman of NJC and the president of NBA to, as a matter of national urgency, bring those involved in these unethical embarrassment and sacrilegious professional misconduct in an infamous manner before the NJC and LPDC and let justice be meted to them,” he said.