Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Nigerian judges and 2015 elections

“Let me use this opportunity to sound a note of warning to all judicial officers. Do not allow any political party or politician to compromise your integrity or your future. We must never again be used as tools to truncate our nation’s democracy.
Chief Justice of Nigeria, Mahmud Mohammed, on February 3, 2015.
On February 3, 2015, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, inaugurated 242 judges carefully selected from the Nigerian courts to sit on election petitions to be filed by candidates and political parties after the 2015 general elections. Justice Mohammed action was in accordance with the provisions of section 133 (3) (a) & (b) of the Electoral Act 2010, (as amended) requiring that election petitions tribunals must be established 14 days prior to the elections, and that the secretariat of the tribunals must be opened seven days before elections.
It should be noted that post-election dispute resolution is a key activity which brings a final closure on the electoral process. The court is the only institution after the election management bodies i.e. Independent National Electoral Commission and the State Independent Electoral Commission that can determine the winner of an election or review and reverse the pronouncement of the Returning Officer on a poll.
Nigerian judiciary therefore plays a pivotal role in the electoral process. The courts not only interpret knotty issues surrounding the conduct of elections, the judiciary also resolves issues around candidates’ nomination disputes which usually arise after the party primaries. As I write this, hundreds of cases have been filed in several courts at the aftermath of the November – December 2014 party primaries conducted by political parties ahead of the forthcoming elections. Thus, the courts are dragged into both pre and post-election crises. Apart from litigation, other dispute resolution mechanisms available to aggrieved parties and political aspirants include mediation.
Since 2006, I have worked very closely with the Office of the President of the Court of Appeal which is responsible for appointing election petitions tribunal judges. My former office (where I voluntarily resigned last year to pursue an independent career in democracy and good governance consultancy) assists with capacity building for tribunal judges by training them on election petitions case management techniques. The training took place for the first time in 2007. It has also been conducted in 2011 and in the first week of this month for the 2015 set. I recall that in 2011, the organisation took a step further by training lawyers who were involved in election petitions on how to handle the cases professionally given the fact that election matters are sui generis i.e. unique or in a class of its own. They are quite different from the normal civil and criminal cases lawyers and judges are used to. In the course of my interactions with members of the Bench and Bar involved in election matters, I have learnt a lot. That is why the admonitions given by the CJN to the 2015 set of the EPT judges resonate with me.
I pity Nigerian judges. They are endangered species. For every judgment given, they make both friends and enemies. Trust Nigerian politicians, once they lose a case at the court, the judges must have been compromised. They must have been bought. But the winning team will gloat and laud the judgment. To the winner, Nigerian judiciary is the true defender of the masses; the last hope of the common man. It would have been okay if these comments are made privately. However, the trend is that both the plaintiffs and the defendants as well as their counsels often take turns to address the press on their perception of the court pronouncements. In many instances, false accusations are levelled against judges who have worked strenuously to dispense justice. While politicians lambast and ridicule the judiciary, the judges are barred, by virtue of their code of ethics, from addressing the press to defend themselves. They are therefore not in a position to join issues with the politicians and their lawyers who cast aspersions on their integrity.
In this country, we have heard of judges and their family members being kidnapped and court houses bombed. Many other judges have also been threatened and in fact molested while others have been unjustly punished for their uncompromising attitude. Many courts which are referred to as “Temples of justice” are in the shambles while the welfare of judicial workers is never the priority of most governments. Just recently, judicial workers went on strike for weeks over welfare issues. The budgetary allocation to Nigerian judiciary is the lowest among the three arms of government despite their enormous constitutional responsibilities. The simple reason for this poor treatment is because, unlike the executive and the legislative arms, it has no power of appropriation.
My sympathy for Nigerian judges does not in any way obliterate the significance of the numerous admonitions the CJN gave to the 242 judges that will sit on election petitions cases for 2015. There is no gainsaying the fact that there are fifth columnists among the members of the Nigerian Bench. They are the ones who rubbish the noble efforts of the distinguished majority who are of exemplary conduct. These scoundrels in the temple of justice are the ones who offer judgments for sale. They are the ones who rather than look at the merit of the matter brought before them resort to technicalities. Some of these erring judges have been severely punished by the National Judicial Council by being compulsorily retired or dismissed from service. However, there have been calls that such erring judges should also be made to stand trial and, if found culpable, jailed for their infamous actions in addition to being made to forfeit their ill-gotten wealth.
However, I wish to remind the judges serving at the election tribunals of the eternal words of the CJN: “Since you all do not have the luxury of time in the discharge of your duties, I urge you all to be pedantic in your deliberations but do not allow ‘red-herring’ technicalities to distract you from the path of justice. You must listen attentively, and enquire appropriately, taking care not to descend into the arena. In addition, it is crucial that you consider all the evidence before you carefully, deliberate conscientiously, and adjudicate swiftly and justly as not only you but the entire Judiciary will also be on trial. Posterity will judge you on the words that you utter in judgment and my sincere prayer is that we will all not be judged harshly by history.”
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