The current leadership crisis rocking the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) as exemplified by the call for its national chairman, Prince Uche Secondus, to either stay or resign has further underscored the need for a critical look at one phenomenon, which has for long constituted judicial malaise, the issue of conflicting court judgements.
Arising from the crisis, the nation has been unnecessarily inundated with a flurry of conflicting judgements from courts of coordinate jurisdiction, further plunging the opposition party and indeed, its members, into a state of avoidable confusion.
It all began when a High Court in Rivers State issued an order of interim injunction, restraining Secondus from parading himself as the national chairman of the PDP, pending the hearing and determination of a suit challenging his continued stay in office on grounds of his suspension from the party.
Justice Okogbule Gbasam of Rivers State High Court, sitting in Port Harcourt, issued the orders while ruling in an ex parte application by some chieftains of the party in the state. However, less than 72 hours after, a vacation Judge of the Kebbi State High Court, Justice Nusirat Umar gave an order restoring Secondus to his position. Twenty-four hours after the Kebbi State ruling, another court in Calabar, Cross River State, further restrained Secondus from parading himself as chairman.
We note rather sadly, that the confusion in PDP arising from conflicting judgement is similar to what is happening in the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA), which was also enmeshed in crisis. The tussle between the Jude Okeke and Victor Oye factions had created confusion in the party as the leaders move from one court to the other in what the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) referred to as forum shopping for injunction in their quest to control the party and ensure their candidates are recognised ahead of the November gubernatorial election in Anambra state.
We recall that Judges in Anambra, Jigawa, Imo states and Abuja intervened in the matter causing INEC to, at various times, list and delist names of Prof Charles Soludo and Umeoji as candidate of APGA for the Anambra governorship poll. INEC had published the name of Umeoji as the APGA candidate following an order by the Jigawa State High Court on June 28 only for Justice Charles Okaa of Anambra State High Court in a directive, 20 days after, to urge the electoral umpire to publish Soludo’s name as APGA’s candidate. Justice Iheka of the Imo State High Court again ordered INEC to publish Umeoji’s name.
As the concern over conflicting judgements lingers, we wonder the place of stare decisis which is the legal principle that provides that similar cases be decided similarly, and that the sound decisions of superior courts should be followed by lower courts and not ignored, even by courts of co-ordinate jurisdiction. The principle ensures that cases with similar scenarios and facts are approached in the same way even as it binds courts to follow legal precedents set by previous decisions.
Indeed, this time-tested principle helps the judiciary to bring order and certainty to the administration of justice even in political matters. The spate of conflicting judgements, especially as witnessed at election petition tribunals and the recent one arising from the PDP leadership crisis, is understandably a source of worry to all, especially stakeholders in the judicial sector.
In the opinion of this newspaper, conflicting judgements suggest to most Nigerians that court judgements are available to the highest bidder. The harm such notion does to the judiciary can better be imagined. There is no contesting the fact, in our view, that an efficient and reliable judiciary is central to having a virile democracy since strict adherence to the rule of law is the basic principle on which a genuine democratic government is built.
We consider it tragic when a people are uncertain about the impartiality or legal soundness of judicial decisions. It is likely to give rise to a tendency for them to lose confidence in the judiciary altogether. That will not be good either for the rule of law or, for that matter, democracy itself.
It is common knowledge that the judiciary is designed as a balancing, harmonising and unifying force. Any mistake, sloppiness or omission on the part of this critical arm can lead to devastating consequences.
Therefore, inconsistencies in the judicial system, which may give rise to a sense of uncertainty and unpredictability ought to be resolved expeditiously.
We admit the fact that the menace of conflicting judgement may not be peculiar to the Nigerian judiciary as there are instances of such occurrence in other climes. However, we commend the Chief Justice of Nigeria intervening so as to nip the problem in the bud before it festers.