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Acting CJN’s Remedy For ‘Politics Poisoned Judiciary’

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From mediaval times till date, the argument among citizens is whether politics elevates or poisons judiciary. An article, ‘’Politics, a Poison for Justice’’? authored by Mark Kersten, the Deputy Director of the Wayamo Foundation and a Fellow based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, published in ’’Washington Post on June 5, 2012, succinctly captures it.

Kersten quoted Dicker as saying, ‘’Ten years ago, when the treaty creating the International Criminal Court took effect, the prospect of holding heads of state and powerful warlords to account for mass slaughter seemed like science fiction.

‘’Today the signs carried by Syrian protesters demanding “Assad to The Hague” are powerful testimony that the court is making its presence felt.

‘’But as the I.C.C.’s influence grows, its promise of impartial justice for the world’s worst crimes is at risk of being undercut by international politics.

‘’Dicker’s piece succinctly evokes an ongoing debate about the relationship between politics and international criminal justice. There is a prevalent belief amongst jurists, lawyers and advocates of international criminal justice that politics is the enemy of justice. Justice, to them, requires a complete separation from political considerations. Politics and justice are like oil and water. Justice must be neutral, black-and-white, and apolitical.

‘’It is hypocritical to hear Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of Bashir’s defiance while her own country has categorically refused to recognise the ICC’s jurisdiction over US citizens in a typical gesture of arrogant, racist justice. It reminds me of the self-righteous ignorance of Thatcher when she once referred to Mandela as a terrorist.

‘’Either the ICC styles up and lives up to its mandate, or the third world will walk out of it and it will remain what it really is, a European/US driven kangaroo court used to intimidate and persecute uncooperative third world leaders like Gbagbo. It is only a matter of time. How is it Ocampo saw it fit to have Gbagbo arrested and shipped off to the Hague but not Ouatarra whose forces equally committed horrific atrocities in the Ivory Coast? Isn’t it because that would have upset French (a key EU member) imperialist plans in the Ivory Coast where Ouattarra was their puppet and personal friend to Sarkozy, the best man at Ouattarra’s wedding? Who will bring the fellow to account’, Kersten asked.

On June 28, 2017 Liam Verses, `Plan II and environmental engineering freshman from San Antonio had in article captioned, ‘Political parties poison the courtroom’ states that  ‘’Texas is known for many things — our rich state history, friendliness, football and George W. Bush, among other things.  However, there is a single item for which we stand out in the wrong way, and that is our judicial selection process.

‘’Texas is one of only five states to use partisan elections to pick judgeships, dating all the way back to 1876, in which Democrat and Republican primaries choose the candidate who will appear on the ballot for the general election: the nine Texas Supreme Court justices, nine Court of Criminal Appeals judges, all 80 judges of the courts of appeals, the Texas District Court judges, probate and statutory county court judges, constitutional county court judges, justices of the peace, and some of the municipal judges are selected in this manner.  From top to bottom, Texas employs a political system to select an apolitical body’’.

When Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh appeared before USA Senate Judiciary Committee, he observed at the start of his testimony (equivalent to senate screening in Nigeria) that, “The Supreme Court must never, never be viewed as a partisan institution’’. President Trump nominated him to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia at the Supreme Court of USA.

Kavanaugh’s remark followed fierce factional battles at the senate exploded into new heights of fury over the last-minute revelation of Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations that Kavanaugh attempted to sexually assault her when they were in high school, and over the grudging and inadequate FBI investigation that followed.

‘Washington Post opinion editor’, Ruth Marcus, in a write-up observes that” titled ‘Partisanship is poison. How will the Supreme Court survive’? ‘’Certainly, the view of the court as an institution above partisan politics was not furthered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) successful blockade of President Barack Obama’s ability to fill the vacancy left by the death of Antonin Scalia

‘’Justice Elena Kagan noted that “the court’s strength as an institution of American governance depends on people believing it has a certain kind of legitimacy — on people believing it’s not simply just an extension of politics, that its decision-making has a kind of integrity to it. If people don’t believe that, they have no reason to accept what the court does.”

‘’Perhaps Kavanaugh, after all the vitriol engendered by his nomination, will go out of his way to prove himself the collegial justice he promised to be, “a team player on the team of nine,” as he so soothingly put it.

‘’As law professors Neal Devins and Lawrence Baum have observed, the court is at a unique moment in its history, for the first time divided into clear blocs in which justices’ ideological views align perfectly with the political party of the president who appointed them

Meanwhile, Professor Ladipo Adamolekun in his opinion published  February 11, 2019 titled ‘The Courts and Politics: A Poisonous Relationship’ said ‘’a polity that seeks judicial answers to political questions runs the risk of undermining its judiciary while simultaneously perpetuating the underdevelopment of its political process.

Nigerian Judiciary’s  Sad Experience

Integrity and perhaps the reputation of nation’s judiciary was torn to shreds at the twilight of June 12, 1993 presidential election and shortly after, when deluge of suits were filed to halt the election as well as urging it to be conducted.

It all began with the June 11, 1993 night-time ruling of Justice Bassey Ikpeme which ordered the then electoral umpire not to conduct the presidential election billed to hold the following day. Barr Bassey Ikpeme was a practicing lawyer in General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida’s Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Clement Akpamgb’s law firm. She was appointed a justice of the FCT High Court few days before June 12, 1993, and the first case, albeit also the last case she sat on was the ex-parte application filed by Chief Arthur Nzeribe’s Association for Better Nigeria (ABN). ABN told the court that both NRC and SDP presidential candidates were corrupt.

ABN was formed after Babangida abolished the 13 political (parties) associations and created National Republican Convention (NRC) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1991. The primary objective of the ABN was to keep Babangida in power. The ABN demonstrated its determination to achieve its objective by putting up billboards in Abuja that carried the message “Four More Years,” which means the military government should stay in power for another four years. The intensity of the ABN’s pro-government campaigns led many observers to conclude that the federal military government was behind the activities of the association. Though, ABN didn’t succeed in stopping the presidential election from holding it succeeded in halting the announcement of the presidential election result. Just as ABN got injunctions in FCT, pro and counter (conflicting) injunctions were secured from courts all over Nigeria. It was an ugly scene to observe.

On June 23, 1993 when General Babangida announced the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, highly believed to have been won by the late Alhaji Moshood K Abiola, he blamed the judiciary for the crisis leading to his decision.

‘’It must be acknowledged that the performance of the judiciary on this occasion was less than satisfactory. The judiciary has been the bastion of the hopes and liberties of our citizens. Therefore, when it became clear that the courts had become intimidated and subjected to the manipulation of the political process, and vested interests, then the entire political system was in clear dangers. This administration could not continue to watch the various high courts carry on their long drawn out processes and contradictory decisions while the nation slides into chaos. It was under this circumstance that the National Defence and Security Council decided that it is in the supreme interest of law and order, political stability and peace that the presidential election be annulled’’, Babangida stated.

In the same vein, General Sanni Abacha blamed the judiciary for sacking Chief Ernest Shonekan’s Interim National Government (ING), following Justice Dolapo Akinsanya of Lagos High Court’s judgement declaring ING illegal and an aberration.

General Abacha however set up a panel headed by the late Justice Kayode Esho in 1994 to cleanse the Judiciary due to its performance in the previous year and the panel recommended 47 justices for sack.

During ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s rule (1999-2007), so many chief judges got their hands burnt over gale of impeachment of state governors.

Section 188(5) of the 1999 constitution as (amended) for instance vested the powers on the state Chief Judge to appoint 7-man panel to investigate allegations of Gross Misconduct of the Executive Governor of a State. While carrying out this function, the chief judges are also to be guided by other sub-sections of Section 188.

The mere failure by some chief judges to comply with the letters of the constitution as they yield to political pressures caused the National Judicial Council to confine them to judiciary graveyards.

According to ‘‘Access to Justice’’, the sacking of four state chief judges at a time in 2006 was announced through NJC’s press statement thus:

‘‘At an emergency meeting held at Abuja on 20th December, 2006, the National Judicial Council, acting with powers vested on it by Paragraph 21(d) of the Third Schedule to the 1999 constitution suspended the Chief Judges of Anambra, Plateau and Ekiti states for the partisan roles played in the impeachment of their respective state governors.

Those suspended were Justices Chika Okoli (Anambra), Ya’u Dakwang (Plateau), and both the Chief Judge of Ekiti state, Justice Kayode Bamisile and the former acting chief judge of the state, Justice Jide Aladejana’’.

Justice Chuka Okoli was placed on suspension by the council for what is considered to be his inglorious act in the controversial impeachment of Peter Obi as governor of the state. Governor Virginia Etiaba effected the decision of the council by appointing an acting chief judge.

Justice Kayode Bamisile, his Ekiti State counterpart, was also sanctioned for similar misconduct. The former chief judge allegedly compromised himself by appointing on the investigation panel persons believed to be cronies of suspended Governor Ayodele Fayose, to probe the alleged misconduct of the governor. But Jide Aladejana, who stepped into Bamisile’s shoes without due process, goes with his boss in line with the council’s recommendation. Justice Ya’u Dakwang, the chief judge of Plateau State, also lost his job because of his reluctance to be guided by law in his participation in the processes leading to the removal of Governor Joshua Dariye.

There is no political moments that consume judges more than election petition tribunal trials. The stakes are so high, pressure brought on the judiciary and participating judges are immeasurable. One would not forget easily the likes of Justices Okechukwu Opene and D. A. Adeniji, who were indicted for taking bribe on the matter of the senatorial election in Anambra State. While Opene allegedly took N12 million, Adeniji was said to have collected N15 million. Obasanjo upheld the decision of the NJC on them.

They are not the only judicial officers who fell victims to the political crisis in Anambra State. Stanley Nnaji, then a judge of Enugu State High Court, was suspended in March 2004 for wrongly assuming jurisdiction on a matter outside his state. The judge had ordered Tafa Balogun, then inspector-general of police, to remove Chris Ngige, who was then the governor of Anambra State. Nnoruka Udechukwu, the state attorney-general and commissioner for justice, petitioned the NJC, complaining that the ruling was in bad faith and against the code of conduct of judicial officers. Nnaji was probably encouraged by the reluctance of the federal government to implement a similar decision of the council on Wilson Egbo-Egbo, another high court judge, for granting an injunction directing Ngige to stop parading himself as the governor.

But shortly after Nnaji committed his own misconduct, Obasanjo approved Egbo-Egbo’s retirement. The latter is one of the nine judges retired in that period for endorsing unnecessary ex-parte applications. They are not the only casualties of political cases. Five others were implicated in the 2003 Election Petition Tribunal in Akwa Ibom State.

They adjudicated on the petition against the re-election of Governor Victor Attah by Ime Umanah, candidate of the defunct All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), at the election. By the time the NJC concluded its job, Matilda Adamu, a judge of the High Court of Plateau State, Christopher P.N. Senlong of the Federal High Court, Lagos, and James Isede, a chief magistrate in the Edo State judiciary, had earned themselves dismissal from the judiciary. D. T. Ahua of the High Court of Plateau State and A. M. Elelegwu of the Customary Court of Appeal, Delta State, were recommended for suspension. The federal government, after approving the verdict of the council on the higher officers in February 2004, sent their case files to the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) for trial.

How Acting CJN is Getting Judiciary’s Acts Together

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) is the head of the judicial arm of the government of Nigeria, and presides over the country’s Supreme Court and the National Judicial Council.

Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad was sworn-in by President Muhammadu Buhari as acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) on January 25, 2019, following the suspension of former CJN, Justice Walter Onnoghen by the President on the orders of the Code of Conduct Tribunal (CCT).

With Justice Onnoghen’s suspension, political debates trailing it, foul turbulent and thunderstorm wind enveloping the judiciary; especially with unmitigated impression generated in some quarters that the judiciary had become All Progressive Congress (APC) instrument, no one expected calm in the system so soon.

The new Judiciary leadership appears to be giving credence to Verse 81 of Dhamapada, a collection of  the sayings of Buddha; otherwise known as Buddhist Scriptures; which says that ‘’Just as a solid rock is not shaken by the storm, even so the wise are not affected by praise or blame.” This is due to the ways and manners judiciary leadership maintained it’s cool while the crisis lasted.

Perhaps, to assure Nigerians, the acting CJN said on May 8, 2019 that no human being, living or dead could influence the judgments of the Supreme Court. Speaking to the management of the Asset Management Corporation of Nigeria (AMCON) led on a courtesy visit to his office by the corporation’s chairman, Dr. Muiz Banire (SAN), Justice Muhammad noted that the Supreme Court Justices were independent-minded and were only answerable to their conscience and God while writing and delivering judgments.

“We take our time in taking notes and writing judgments to avoid making mistakes. We subject every case before us to intense debates and arguments during our conferences in order to be as dispassionate and objective as possible. Let me state clearly that we are not answerable to anybody and can never be intimidated by anybody whatsoever in taking our decisions. But for certain, we are only answerable to God Almighty because He is the owner of our lives. No human being, living or dead, can influence the reasoning or judgments of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. We are very independent in Supreme Court because of the enormity of the trust and responsibility reposed in us by the almighty God, the Constitution and our dear nation.”

Recent Supreme Court judgements have however brought in a renewed confidence and faith in the judiciary. It is not because the verdict went against the interest of the APC and President Buhari, but because of certainty and consistency in the judgements.

Supreme Court had on February 12, 2019 finally struck out all pending appeals challenging the judgement of the Port Harcourt Division of the Federal High Court which barred the APC from fielding candidates in the 2019 general elections.

Justice Olabode Rhodes-Vivour led 5-man panel followed the apex court judgement of February 8, 2019 which upheld the order of a Federal High Court, Port Harcourt, nullifying the APC primaries in Rivers State.

The trial court said that the primaries were held in disobedience to a court judgement barring the party from conducting congresses pending the determination of a suit filed by 22 aggrieved members of the party.

Again, Supreme Court on May 24, 2019 nullified the elections of all the candidates of the APC in Zamfara State in the 2019 general elections.

Delivering a unanimous judgment of the five-man panel led by the Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Tanko Muhammad, the apex court declared the first runners-up in the 2019 general elections in the state as the winners of all the posts earlier declared to have been won by the APC and its candidates.

Justice Paul Galinje, who read the lead judgment upheld the decision of the Sokoto Division of the Court of Appeal to the effect that the APC did not conduct any valid primary election and as such had no candidate for any of the elections in the state.

Even the recusal or withdrawal of President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa on May 21, 2019 as a member of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, following petitions filed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar that she was likely to be biased against them was widely applauded.

Atiku and PDP had filed applications on May 16, 2019 alleging that their petition challenging the victory of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and its candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, in the February 23, 2019 poll, would not be handled impartially by the tribunal due to Justice Bulkachuwa’s ties to top members of the APC.

They noted that while Justice Bulkachuwa’s husband, Adamu, is a senator-elect on the platform of the APC, the party whose victory at the February 23 presidential election they are challenging at the tribunal, her son, Aliyu Abubakar, was a governorship aspirant on the platform of the same party in Gombe State.

Justice Bulkachuwa withdrew from the tribunal for personal reasons after it dismissed an application by PDP and Atiku, asking her to recuse herself from the tribunal.

Her replacement by Lagos Division Presiding Justice, Justice Muhammed Lawal Garuba on June 10, 2019, a well-known no nonsense judge also increased the scorecard on confidence building in the Third Arm of Government.

According to Barr Alasa Ismaila and Barr Abanika Muktar, the calmness in the system now confirms enviable height of confidence reposed in the judiciary by Nigerians.

‘’It is not calm because several judgements in the recent times went in favour of the opposition PDP. It mustn’t be and it shouldn’t be, and indeed they were not. Of course, justice isn’t if it’s given out of ill-will, fear or favour; or given because the PDP would say the judiciary is in APC pocket. By and large, judiciary’s current leadership deserve serious commendation and encouragement.’’

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