Nigeria has enjoyed uninterrupted civil rule since May 29, 1999. But for some pundits, the efficacy of May 29 which was the day Nigeria returned to democratic rule would not have been but for the struggle to uphold the June 12 presidential mandate won by Late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
Until three years ago, Democracy Day was usually celebrated on May 29.
But President Muhammadu Buhari, on June 6, 2018 announced June 12 as the new Democracy Day to commemorate the sacrifice made by Abiola, who died in custody after he was arrested and detained by the government of former dictator, Late General Sani Abacha, after the elections.
However, the return to civil rule cannot be complete without mentioning the immense contribution of the judiciary. For some pundits, the judiciary can be described as the stabilising factor of the democratic experience.
Since Nigeria became independent in 1960, the country has never been governed democratically at a stretch for 22 years, until the inception of the Fourth Republic in 1999.
But the judiciary has withstood the vagaries of the military and played a very critical role in the survival of democracy in the country since 1999.
Despite its efforts at saving the country from descending into a state of anarchy, the judiciary has been harassed, intimidated and demonised but in all these, it has stood its ground.
This in spite of the accusations that the judiciary too shares in the blame of the poor state of the country.
The executive arm of government has often accused judges and lawyers of being clogs in the wheel of anti-corruption war.
Of course, there are corrupt judges and lawyers just as there are corrupt persons in all arms of government and even in private endeavours.
Still, in the last 22 years, the judiciary has contributed to the nation’s electoral process such that it has been able to rein in the excesses of the political class.
In 2003, when the incumbent Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige was illegally declared the Governor of Anambra State, the court sacked him and restored the people’s mandate freely given to Peter Obi. When Obi was wrongfully removed by the Anambra State House of Assembly, it was the same judiciary that reinstated him to office.
When the serving minister of Transportation, Chibuike Amaechi, contested and won the nomination of his former party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Rivers state in December 2006 but was unlawfully replaced by Chief Celestine Omehia, he approached the court to seek redress.
The Supreme Court in a landmark judgment regarded as ‘locus classicus’ in law on October 25, 2007, declared Amaechi the rightfully elected candidate of the PDP. Despite the fact that Amaechi did not participate in the secondary election, he was declared winner.
The judiciary has also saved the political careers of Dr. Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, former Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State and also the former APC national chairman and former Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State, who all regained their first governorship mandates through the Tribunal.
Between 2006 and 2007, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar may have been removed from office, if the judiciary had not been called upon to intervene.
Many politicians who assumed office illegally had their elections nullified and were removed.
In 2014, the Supreme Court in order to deter our political parties from wrongfully nominating or substituting their candidates illegally, asked all the usurpers to refund all the emoluments they had collected illegally while holding their exalted offices.
Some governors approached the court for an order to have their tenure elongated. At this point, the apex court was also called upon to intervene and as usual did not disappoint. The governors were trying to elongate their tenures through the backdoor by misinterpreting Section 180 (2) of 1999 Nigerian Constitution as amended in 2010 to say that their tenure started to count from the day they were sworn in after winning a re-run election.
But the Supreme Court in a landmark judgment on January 27, 2012 interpreted that section of the law that any governor whose election was annulled and asked to be re-conducted, should he win the re-run, his tenure will start to count from when he was initially sworn in and not the time he wins a rerun.
This position was later reflected in the 2010 constitution amendment. It was through judicial activism that Nigeria now has staggered elections in which case governor elections in Anambra, Kogi, Bayelsa, Ekiti, Edo, Ondo, and Osun now hold on different dates from the general elections.
The court also nullified many of the rash and unconstitutional impeachments of many deputy governors and indeed governors by the State Houses of Assembly.
Among them were the nullification of the impeachments of former Governor Murtala Nyako of Adamawa State, as well as those of the ex-Deputy Governors Sunday Onyebuchi of Enugu State, Mohammed Garba Gadi of Bauchi State, and Ali Olanusi of Ondo state. The nullification of the illegal impeachments went a long way to stem the tide among intolerant politicians.
The story of the judiciary in the country will not be complete without mentioning the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal.
But in the history of the judiciary in Nigeria, one issue that shook the judiciary to its foundation was the recent removal of the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Nkanu Onnnoghen.
He was dragged before the Code of Conduct Tribunal over non-declaration of his assets. The tribunal found him guilty and convicted him. But shortly before the judgement of the tribunal could be passed, Justice Onnoghen resigned from office.
Some lawyers have however described his trial and conviction as a sham. One of such lawyers is Mr. Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human rights activist based in the United States
Ogebe did not spare the National Judicial Council, (NJC) and the Presidency on Onnoghen’s trial and conviction.
Ogebe said, ‘’One of the things we also noted was the injustice meted out to the immediate past Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Walter Onnoghen.
“ It is a travesty of the highest order that the federal government could sit down and orchestrate a kangaroo trial.
‘’The whole proceeding was a sham. Witnesses contradicted themselves and at the end of the day you still convicted the man. The whole trial was a comedy of errors. Having looked at that, one is deeply concerned that the Constitution has been violated and the rule of law abused,’’ Ogebe added.
When asked how the judiciary of the country has fared, Dr. Alex Izinyon, senior advocate, said the judiciary has done well.
Izinyon said, ‘’If I have to rate the judiciary alongside the two other arms of government, I will say the judiciary has done well. I can say that with every sense of responsibility, the judiciary has done excellently well.
‘’Nigeria’s judiciary has produced World Court President, Prof. Teslim Elias and we have also provided people like, Prof. Bola Ajibola, Udo Udoma and many others. We have also produced Chief Justices to serve in other countries like Gambia, Botswana and others. Don’t forget, even during the military, the judiciary stood its ground and since 1999 when we returned to democracy, the judiciary has done very well’’.
He admitted that there may be one or two setbacks, but said they are not enough to rubbish the entire structure.
He said Nigerians should not also forget that the judiciary is working against the tide.
‘’If you want to look at judicial autonomy which we have been battling with, you will appreciate the judiciary. From the three arms of government, they are still the ones that are pleading up till now for funds, which is not right. When you also talk about the amenities we work with, you will give kudos to the judiciary.
‘’That is where the problem lies and it is this issue that has been a challenge which has not made it what it ought to be. What I mean is that, if they are really independent, there should be financial independence too,” he said.
Another senior advocate, Mr. Ahmed Raji, said the situation the judiciary has found itself is strangulating but added that by and large, the judiciary has done well.
He said, ‘’For example, our electoral jurisprudence needs a total overhaul. Recently, the American government came out to say some persons who committed electoral offences in the last Kogi state governorship election will be denied visas. Don’t forget, the matter was litigated up to the supreme court and the losers couldn’t get anything out of it. What is wrong? If justice was delivered, why was America now talking of placing people on ban? Was justice deliberately sacrificed by the Supreme Court judges? The answer is no! the instrument they are working with, electoral law is not good enough and I will give you an example.
‘’If you have a House of Assembly complaint, you have 14 days to prove it under the law, if you have a House of Representatives complaint, you have 14 days to prove it, Senate seat 14 days, governorship 14days, and the presidential election also 14 days. How sensible is that? State wide election 14 days, a small constituency election, 14 days and you say there is a value in it. Now somebody comes forward and says I have a problem in 700 polling units and you say 14 days, how do you expect him to prove it within 14 days? So, the judiciary is handicapped.
‘’Back to my question, do we need this presidential system? Do we need it? If we change the model, the judiciary would be able to perform better and would be able to dispense justice. So, the judiciary has not been well equipped to be able to deliver justice. It’s a big challenge in the system which we may be able to address by tinkering with the model by moving away from the presidential to parliamentary system and then perhaps, that would sanitize it,’’ he said.