Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Cheering news in the midst of national gloom

Nigerians seem so accustomed to man-made tragedies, bad governance and routine negative news that we fail to acknowledge little positive steps and achievements when they occur. We are inured to negative news so much that nothing shocks us anymore. When there are tragic events like terrorist attack, road accident, flashflood, epidemic and so on, we shrug it off and go on with our business as if nothing has happened. The common catchphrase is, “And so what? Life goes on! Today, I have decided to recall some of the positive, soul-lifting stories that happened in the recent past. I have decided to chronicle the silver lining in our nation’s dark sky.
The first is the increasing use of law as an instrument of social engineering and the incremental positive output from public interest litigation and judicial activism. Not long ago, a Lagos-based lawyer, Festus Keyamo, won a case against the Federal Government over the appointment of military service chiefs. Delivering judgment in a case instituted in 2008 by Keyamo, Justice Adamu Bello of the Federal High Court, Abuja, issued a restraining order against the President from further appointing Service Chiefs without first seeking and obtaining the concurrence of the Senate.
The judge, in a July 1, 2013 ruling, nullified the appointment of all Service Chiefs of the federation on the grounds that their appointment was carried out in violation of the constitution. Bello consequently declared their appointments unconstitutional, illegal, null and void. The Service Chiefs affected by the court’s declaration were the Chief of Army Staff, Lt. Gen. Azubuike Ihejirika; the Chief of Naval Staff, Vice-Admiral Dele Ezeoba; and the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Alex Badeh, all of whom have since been replaced.  The lesson learnt from this is that when President Goodluck Jonathan appointed the current Service Chiefs, he sent their names to the Senate for confirmation thereby obeying court order and righting the wrong of the past.
Scenario two: On March 26, 2014, a Federal High Court in Lagos held that it was unconstitutional for the Federal Road Safety Corps, to impose new number plates on motorists in the country. The judge, Justice James Tsoho, delivered the judgment following a suit by a lawyer, Emmanuel Ofoegbu, challenging the powers of the FRSC to issue the new number plates. Ofoegbu had challenged the power of the corps to impound vehicles of motorists who failed to acquire the new number plates.
Scenario three:  On  March 27,  2014, sequel to a suit filed by a civil rights lawyer, Mr. Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, against the Attorney-General of the Federation, the National Inland Waterways Authority, the Lagos State Government and the state Attorney-General, the Federal High Court Lagos barred the Lagos State Government from further collection of tolls from users of the Lekki-Ikoyi Suspension Bridge. Justice Saliu Saidu, in a judgment declared that since the bridge was built from public funds, imposition of tolls on motorists using it was illegal. The court later granted a stay of execution brought before it by the Lagos State Government just as the case is also on appeal.
Scenario four: On Monday, April 14, 2014, a Supreme Court judgment voided the Igbo customary law which denies daughters inheriting their fathers’ estate. The Supreme Court said it was discriminatory and in conflict with the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. The judgment was given in a family dispute between Gladys Ada Ukeje, who was disinherited from the estate of her deceased father, Lazarus Ogbonna Ukeje. She sued her step-mother, Mrs. Lois Chituru Ukeje, and her son, Enyinnaya Lazarus Ukeje. A Lagos High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court all reached the same decision on the matter.
Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, JSC, who read the lead judgment stated, “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Consequently, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate, is a breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian”.
Scenario five: On April 17, 2014, an Abuja High Court declared the “Park and Pay Policy” introduced by the Federal Capital Territory Administration as illegal. The policy required motorists in Abuja to pay fees whenever they parked their vehicles in designated areas. In a judgment delivered by Justice Peter Affen, the judge held that although the policy may be laudable, it was not backed by the law. The suit was filed by a firm, Sun Trust Savings and Loans Limited, which approached the court to challenge the legality of the policy. Through its lawyer, Ekene Okwubanego, the plaintiff had sued the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory and two companies commissioned to operate the policy, asking the court to stop the collection of fees from motorists through the scheme.
What is the import of these landmark judgments and why are they cheery news? They are heartwarming because they signpost the fact that the Nigerian judiciary is working and that aggrieved persons or organisations can still get justice using the instrumentality of the law rather than resorting to self-help. These judgments will help to bolster people’s confidence in the judiciary. Moreover, this is one of the “software” dividends of democracy in Nigeria. Civil liberties that enable an aggrieved citizen to approach the court for redress are only meaningful and impactful during civil rule. If the military were to be in power, they would have suspended the Constitution and ousted the jurisdiction of the court to entertain some of these suits which have made individuals to defeat their government in courts.
These are not the only cheery stories though. Others include the recent rebasing of Nigeria’s Gross Domestic Product by the National Bureau of Statistics.  As a result of the GDP rebasing, the size of the Nigerian economy has grown by 89 per cent to N80.3tn ($509.9bn). This ranks Nigeria as the world’s 26th largest economy, the largest economy in Africa, bigger than Angola, Egypt and Vietnam put together, and 12 times the Ghanaian economy. Also worth celebrating is the Thursday, April 24, announcement of two eminent Nigerians, the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala , and the President, Dangote Group, Aliko Dangote, among the Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.
In his citation, Dangote was referred to as “Africa’s richest man who does good, in addition to doing well.” Part of Okonjo-Iweala’s citation read that “Ngozi has made corruption her enemy and stability her goal. She is fiercely intelligent…” Lest I forget, our entertainment industry is the best and largest in Africa. In fact, Nollywood is the third best in the world, bettered only by America’s Hollywood and India’s Bollywood. Furthermore, about seven of Nigeria’s musicians are among the richest in Africa going by Channel O and Forbes’ list released in 2013.
To round off the chronicle is the soothing news from the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation naming the city of Port Harcourt as the World Book Capital for 2014. Port Harcourt was reportedly chosen “on account of the quality of its programme, in particular, its focus on youths and the impact it will have on improving Nigeria’s culture of books, reading, writing and publishing to improve literacy rates”, so said UNESCO Selection Committee. Who would have believed that something this good can come out of the capital of Rivers State which has been engulfed in a war of attrition between the state government and the Presidency as well as some Abuja politicians of Rivers origin. This is congratulating all the lawyers who won their public interest suits; Okonjo-Iweala and Dangote and the Rivers State Government on their awards and recognition!