Nigerian Government, Supreme Court on a War Path

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Muhammadu Buhari
Buhari

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Amidst threats by the federal government to jail corrupt judges, the Supreme Court shocks the nation as it ruled against the ruling All Progressives Congress in governorship election cases in Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Abia, Delta and Abia, all stronghold states of the Peoples Democratic Party, despite the violence that trailed the elections in the states. This sparks the idea that apex court may be on a war path with the executive as the rulings is a clear signal that it will not be intimidated or browbeaten by the former

By Maureen Chigbo  |   Feb 15, 2016 @ 01:00 GMT  |

THESE are trying times for the Nigerian judiciary as an independent arm of the government in the country as it battles allegations of corruption and intimidation from the federal government. Ever since the 2015 general elections ended in April 11, 2015, litigants, who are contesting the results announced by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, besieged it to seek redress. The litigants, who are politicians who lost the election on either the platform of All Progressives Congress,  APC, the ruling party and the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, the main opposition or other small parties like the All Progressives Grand Alliance, first went to the Election Tribunals to seek reliefs for perceived wrongs.  The ink on the judgements of the election tribunals has hardly dried when they trooped to the appellate courts to challenge the lower court rulings.

While at the appellate courts, they levelled allegations of maladministration of justice and corruption against the Election Tribunals judges.  The judges at the tribunals were demonised because of the discordant rulings on similar cases in the 36 states of the federation which were perceived to have run contrary to the stipulations of the Electoral Act 2014. The contentious issue mostly centred on the use of card reader or original INEC voter register to determine the results of the election. Some courts in the APC ruling states upheld the user of card readers which malfunctioned during the elections and is only a mere policy of the INEC as against the use of voter register which is recognised by the Electoral Act which they discountenanced in the PDP states.

Also, the PDP raised alarm that the ruling party was using the Department of State Security to cajole and intimidate electoral officers and judges to rule in their favour. The PDP, whose candidates were mostly affected by the court rulings cited sections of the Electoral Act which supported their cases. While the winners who belong to the APC cited sections which supported their cases to side with the tribunals. Suffice it to state that while the ding-dong lasted, the losers at the appellate court matched straight to the Supreme Court in their search for justice.

As the cases were before the Supreme Court, more pressures descended on the judiciary as the federal government weighed in accusing the judiciary of being corrupt. Abubakar Malami, attorney-general of the federation vowed in January that “corrupt judges will go to jail as the government of President Muhammadu Buhari will actively promote and ensure that they are prosecuted and their illegally acquired assets returned to the state.” The minister said the office of the attorney general of the federation, in line with the cardinal agenda of President Buhari’s administration, would ensure that every appearance of corruption in the judiciary is dealt with among other measures through criminal prosecution and forfeiture to the state of illegally acquired assets. “Acts of judicial impunity will also not be condoned, so that our judges can be judicially accountable at all times in a corruption-free judiciary, which is both independent and impartial.” The attorney general could have been speaking about corruption in the judiciary vis-à-vis the war against graft in the country but some political watchers who are not on the side of government think he said it to mount pressure on the judiciary not to rule against the ruling party in the election cases it is handling.

Mahmud Mohammed
Mohammed

Apart from the attorney general’s threat to the judiciary, President Buhari, on January 31, in far away Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said that the judiciary remained his main headache in the fight against corruption. Buhari said corruption is so pervasive in the country that it requires the strong support of the judiciary to effectively fight.  The President, who stated that he needed the support of the judiciary to win the anti-graft war, recalled that corruption in the judiciary stalled his presidential ambition for three times. He also promised to overhaul the country’s judicial system.

These pressures on the judiciary are coming in the wake of the hearing of election petitions at the Supreme Court which is the final arbiter on election matters involving the National Assembly and governorship elections. With regards to governorship, the Supreme Court was then considering the hotly contested cases of Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Abia, all the PDP strongholds and oil rich states.

Prior to the cases being taken to the Supreme Court, there have been allegations by the opposition that the ruling party manipulated judicial proceedings at the lower court to its advantage using the Department of State Security, DSS, to intimidate the INEC officials and the judges, especially in Rivers State and Akwa Ibom. There are also allegations that the Buhari administration has also tried to use the judiciary to get what it could not achieve through free and fair elections.

The controversial decisions of election tribunals and the appellate courts across the country, especially in Abia, Akwa-Ibom, Rivers and Taraba states lends credence to this allegation.  In Akwa-Ibom and Rivers states, appeal courts returned an outright cancellation and ordered rerun of elections in the states. In Abia and Taraba states, the fight was narrowed to who are the rightful persons to be governors of those states.  Governor Okezie Ikpeazu of Abia State had been declared winner of the gubernatorial election held in the state on April 11, by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. The verdict was endorsed by the state election tribunal, which dismissed his opponents’ suit on November 3, 2015. But the appeal court, sitting in Owerri, Imo State, on Thursday, December 31, sacked Ikpeazu by ruling that Alex Otti, candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA, winner of the April 11 governorship election in the state.

Ikpeazu, a candidate of the PDP, took the matter to the Supreme Court to challenge the annulment of his victory. The five-man appellate court upturned Ikpeazu’s victory, saying that Otti scored 164, 444 valid votes to defeat the PDP candidate who scored 114, 444 votes.

The court declared that the cancellation of the elections held in Obingwa, Osisioma Ngwa and Isiala Ngwa local government areas by the returning officers after the results were uploaded to the INEC was wrong.

“In the Electoral Act, the Returning Officer has the right to only declare results of elections and not to cancel elections. This panel discovered that the earlier results uploaded to INEC headquarters correspond with the correct valid registered voters in the three LGAs, while that awarded to the respondent, shows over voting and therefore null and void,” Justice Oyebisi Omoleye who read the judgement said.

Apart from Ikpeazu’s case, Governor Darius Ishaku of Taraba State, who had been sacked at the tribunal had the appellate court in Abuja, reinstating him as the governor.  By the verdict, Aisha Alhassan, candidate of the APC and current minister of women affairs, was floored once again. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on the case.

But it has upheld the elections of the PDP governors in Rivers, Akwa Ibom and Abia states. In the governorship election petition brought against Governor Nyesom Wike of River State and the PDP by Dakuku Peterside, candidate of the APC, the appeal court had agreed with the state election tribunal, nullified the election and ordered a fresh poll but Wike faulted the judgement and took the case to the apex court.

Also, in Akwa Ibom, the election petitions tribunal annulled the governorship election in 18 local governments of the state even. But the court of appeal sitting in Abuja, on December 17, 2015, went a bit further and cancelled the entire election and ordered a fresh election within 90 days. Udom Emmanuel, governor of the state and candidate of the PDP, also went to the Supreme Court. Umana Umana, candidate of the APC in the election has challenged Emmanuel’s election all the way.

Wike
Wike

Other states that took the governorship election tussle to the Supreme are Ebonyi State and Delta State. Prior to the recent cases, the Supreme Court had previously decided the case of Lagos State in favour of Governor Akinwumi Ambode, candidate of the APC against Jimi Agbaje of the PDP while discountenancing the card reader. The case of Lagos is similar to that of Rivers and Akwa Ibom.

As at last week, the Supreme Court has given its judgements on the election petition involving Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Abia, Ebonyi, Delta states, upholding the result as announced by the INEC when the elections were held on April 11, 2015. The Supreme Court judgements dashed the hopes of Peterside, Umana Umana, and Alex Otti, Great Ogboru all candidates of the APC from Rivers, Akwa Ibom, Abia and Delta. The apex court is yet to rule on Taraba.

But Nigerians are wondering whether the rulings of the Supreme Court were based on technicalities or just for political expediency because of the tension in states like Rivers and Akwa Ibom where elections were characterised by violence, to forestalled further violence from erupting should a re-run election be ordered in those states. A school of thought thinks that the apex court rulings discountenancing the violence that trialed the election in Akwa Ibom and Rivers could jeopardise the future of the judiciary in dispensing justice.

Soji Akinrinade, a veteran journalist and executive director of Mayfive, thinks that it’s all political judgement done to keep the balance in the polity. “If you say that Rivers election is okay with all the violence that took place during the election, I don’t know that it portends for future elections. I don’t know whether this ruling is about asserting the independence of the judiciary itself. Remember the case of Awolowo Versus Shagari where the Supreme Court came up with the 2 2/3 political judgement and warning that the case should not be cited in any judicial adjudication. Something must be working in their mind for them to upturn the tribunal and appeal court judgements in Rivers State. Maybe they are watching the political atmosphere and thinking let sleeping dogs lie. But the large question is, is it right? It could also be that they upturned the ruling was based on technicalities. I don’t know how it will be. It depends on how the cases were decided. If you watched the violence that happened in Bayelsa, you ask yourself is it really worth it. I don’t envy them at all,” Akinrinade said.

According to him, “The fact remains right now there is no violence in Rivers with the ruling. They may be right. The other side is, how does it affect the administration of justice in the future election because of the violence that trailed the election? How will this judgement affect the future conduct of the election and administration of justice? When the give their reasons for the decision we will know better.”

Against the line of thought, another key question is whether the rulings by the Supreme Court have rescued the judiciary from allegations of corruption and of being manipulated by the ruling government? Did the rulings portray the judiciary as asserting its independence or is it plunging it into more problems? There are no easy answers and it all depends on the side of the fence one is. Right now the Supreme Court is yet to give its reason for its verdict so far so one will have to wait until it does so.

However, a Nigerian, who wishes anonymity, sees the action of the Supreme Court as that done by human beings operating in an environment; rushing to meet deadline set for hearing the cases. He believes that a combination of factors would have made them to reach their decisions, adding, the Supreme Court judges cannot not be Biafrans while they are Nigerians, implying that the Nigerian factor (corruption) could have a hand in the judgements given by the apex court.

The idea of the Supreme Court being corrupt may have prompted John Oyegun, national chairman of the APC, to call for the investigation of the Supreme Court judges, over his party’s loss of Rivers State governorship seat to the opposition PDP. Last week, Oyegun, expressed shock over the ruling of the Supreme Court, saying: “I still find the judgement on the Rivers State governorship election totally astonishing. There is something fundamentally wrong in the judiciary. We have lost very important resource-rich states to the PDP. No matter how crude oil prices have fallen, it is still the most important revenue earner for the country.”

Mike Ozekhome
Ozekhome

Contrarily, Mike Ozekhome, SAN and human rights activists, said the Supreme Court by its ruling sent a very clear signal that the judges are not about to be browbeaten, intimidated or cowed particularly by the presidency. “The statements emanating from the presidency about jailing of judges and prosecuting them despite the position of law and the Nigerian Judicial Council, NJC, which supervises and disciplines the judiciary. In the last few days, the President says the judiciary is his headache. John Oyegun, the APC chairman also laments about losing Rivers State which he describes as oil rich. I am worried about statements, which dictates to the judiciary how its decision should be despite the hallowed division of labour between the three arms of government – the executive, legislative and judiciary.

“What the Supreme Court has done is to say we look at law and Constitution and decide cases to meet the justice of each case and to satisfy our conscience. Judiciary cannot be dictated to or brow beaten. People already anticipated that the judiciary will rule in favour of the ruling party, hence the mass defection expecting outright nullification of the election.

“The judiciary was actually being taken for granted. The provisions of the law are clear. Card reader is a mere innovation to facilitate accreditation and not clear provision by the Electoral Act. At the tribunal, the judges gave preeminence to card reader whereas it is the original voter register that the Constitution and Electoral Act recognise. In the case of Akwa Ibom, there are about 30,000 polling booths. For you to know that there is over voting, you have to take into account the theatre of war which is the polling units in most of these cases. The political parties called 20 witnesses in Abia and only four witnesses who testified against is being used to determine the case of 250,000 voters and they said there was no voting. Under section 139 even if there are irregularities, for you to overturn an election, the fact of irregularity has to be so substantial. But in many of these cases, even if you subtracted from overall votes, the margin is far less than the number of cases cancelled.  Such cases cannot stand the test of time and the Supreme Court analysed that cases in Abia, Akwa Ibom and Rivers cannot stand scrutiny,” he said.

Ozekhome is proud that the Supreme Court has put its leg on the good as the last hope of common man and can be depended on to guard against executive rascality and executive recklessness.

This will not be the first time in the country that the judiciary has had to assert its independence. Even during the time of military juntas in the country, the judiciary refused to be cowed as seen in the case of Lagos State Versus Ojukwu among others. Notwithstanding that, Ozekhome thinks “the Supreme Court has come to stay not cowed, marginalised, oppressed, annihilated, not in any way intimidated. God bless Nigeria, We have hope. There is hope in the country.”

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