I have told the story before on this page of my experience on 14th June 1993, when the then National Electoral Commission (NEC) suspended the release of the results of the presidential election held two days earlier, in deference to a court injunction obtained by the Chief Arthur Nzeribe-led Association for Better Nigeria (ABN). Following the development, there was a meeting at the then NICON-NOGA Hilton (now Transcorp) hotel where no fewer than six governors of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP) were gathered to deliberate on the next line of action.
Right in my presence, three of the Governors, (two from South and another from the North) made calls to their respective states. While I had no idea about the people at the other end of the telephone lines, the instructions were very clear: they should go and meet Justice so, so and so to be granted order ex-parte to compel NEC to release the presidential election result.
Looking back today, the real issue was not that the Governors wanted and got the court orders they requested but rather that each was specific as to which Judge whoever they were sending should go to. What that implies is that it is not all judges that are susceptible to such manipulation and corruption. However, the danger, as I pointed out in the past, is that in a society where you have a preponderance of Judges who can give out any court order (and definitely not for free), the system is in jeopardy. Sadly, the general feeling in our country today is that in most of our courts, justice is for sale and to the highest bidders.
Before I go further, I need to stress that I am a defender of our judiciary, essentially because we live in a country where people peddle a lot of rumours and where most politicians judge others by their own standards. Yet, even at that, I also do not believe it is in our collective interest to gloss over what has become a serious problem. In fact, if I had any doubts about the magnitude of the rot within the judiciary, they were cleared by the several mails and calls I received, including from very prominent citizens, after my recent column on “The Assault on Supreme Court”. The conclusion I could draw from some of the well-meaning interventions was that it is not only elections that are rigged in Nigeria, many judgements, especially on election petition matters, are now also traded.
However, it is comforting that the authorities are aware that the integrity of the judiciary is gradually being eroded by some of these judgements. That, I guess, is the basis for the ongoing ‘National Conference on Election Petition Tribunals’ in Abuja organized by the Court of Appeal in collaboration with the International Foundation for Electoral System (IFES). While the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa should be commended for the idea, I am of the opinion that Justices of the Supreme Court should also begin to do that kind of self-examination.
Meanwhile, if there is any issue that illustrates the problem of our democracy vis-a-vis the judiciary, it is in the peculiar politics of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in Anambra State. While elections are fought in some other places with violence, PDP politicians in Anambra are more civilized in that they always ensure elections in the state are never settled by ballot (or bullets like in Rivers) but rather by the courts. But if you look at the cases, and the interventions of the judiciary on them, you get a sense that there is something untidy, especially since it would seem almost every politician in the state has his/her own court while judgements in most of the cases are almost always subject to interpretations and interpolations. And if examinations were set as to who was a Governor, Senator or House of Representatives member from/in Anambra State at a specific period, the likelihood is that students would fail!
At a point, Mr Peter Obi, who replaced Dr Chris Ngige (whose election was nullified after three years in office), was himself replaced by his deputy, Dame Virgy Etiaba, following a kangaroo impeachment. Obi went to court and was returned to office after which an election was held at a time he was again in court to argue that his tenure had not expired. Of course Dr. Andy Uba won that election in 2007 and was sworn in before he was removed 14 days later by the Supreme Court on grounds that Obi had not completed his tenure. That elicited several court cases with injunctions upon injunctions. But all those were in the past. Today, Anambra politics is back in the news and so is the judiciary as its “ambush tool”.
For those who may wonder why I know so much about Anambra, it is because early in 2007, I decided to write a book on politics in the state since I found it rather fascinating. But as it would happen, a few weeks after I started gathering materials, I got the Aso Rock appointment that put paid to the plan. I may return to the idea one day, in the light of all the current drama, including the musical chairs in the National Assembly.
Senator Uche Ekwunife recently lost her seat at the Court of Appeal on the strength of intra-party crisis and efforts to conduct a fresh election have been marred by several court cases. Between 2007 and 2011, Ikechukwu Abana was sacked by the court and replaced by Annie Okonkwo while Joy Emordi was also removed by the court and replaced by Alphonsus Igbeke, all in the Senate. Incidentally, the same Emordi had also replaced Emma Anosike in the previous Senate based on a judgment of the Court of Appeal before Margery Okadigbo also replaced John Emeka in the senate. The number of times House of Representatives seats had changed membership based on court orders in several constituencies within the state at different times is beyond ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the drama is not about to abate. To conduct a replacement for Ekwunife in the Senate has become a subject of several litigations. The All Progressive Congress (APC) wants to replace the Minister of Labour, Dr. Chris Ngige who ran the election last year with Mrs Sharon Ikeazor while the PDP is plotting to present a fresh candidate in former Governor Obi who didn’t contest last year. I understand someone has already secured a court order from a Judge who, rather than go with the Supreme Court ruling on an already settled matter, relied on the dictionary meaning of the word “fresh” to rule that anybody can participate in a process called fresh election! Meanwhile, Chief Chris Uba, Chief Annie Okonkwo and Chief John Emeka are laying claims to the three senatorial seats.
While the logjam continues and INEC is in a bind, the Ejike Oguebego-led executive of the PDP in Anambra, recognized by Supreme Court ruling last month as the authentic leadership of the party in the state, is seeking other judicial reliefs. Ordinarily, by holding that the Oguebego executive remained the authentic leadership of the party in Anambra, the apex court was giving validity to the list submitted for election last year by this faction of the party. The implication of the ruling, which formed the kernel of media interpretation, was that Senators Andy Uba and Stella Oduah, as well as no fewer than nine House of Representatives members had lost their seats. But in refusing to make any declarative pronouncement following its verdict, Supreme Court has taken with its left hand what it gave with the right because Uba and Oduah cannot now be dislodged from the Senate and with that, Anambra politicians have again descended on the courts shopping for all manner of reliefs.
What the foregoing says clearly is that there is an interesting intersection between politics and the court in Anambra State but it did not start today. For instance, on 22 July 2003, Justice Samson Egbo-Egbo, at the instance of Hon. Eucharia Azodo, granted an ex-parte injunction asking Dr. Ngige to stop parading himself as Governor and hand over to his then deputy, Dr. Okey Udeh. Following the public outcry that greeted the said order, the Judge, a week later, “set the record straight” by denying making such order, putting the blame at the doorstep of the court registrar: “The order I made was not the one drawn up by the senior registrar. One would have expected him to lift the five orders I made.”
However, the then Attorney General of the Federation and Justice Minister, Chief Akin Olujimi, was convinced that Egbo-Egbo did make the order and he told the judge so clearly in court: “You have clarified the issue, but there would have been no need to ask the applicant to sign an indemnity if you have not granted an injunction”. Eventually, Egbo-Egbo was eased out of the bench but the judiciary is still replete with many judges like him.
However, like I stated earlier, I have always found Anambra politics interesting, right from 1998 when 17 aspirants jostled for the PDP gubernatorial ticket in the state. At the end of the deadline for payment of a scandalous non-refundable screening fee of N2.1 million imposed on each aspirant, only ten remained. When the primaries held, Prof. ABC Nwosu, who was then the party’s secretary in the state, was declared winner. The other nine aspirants, including a former Daily Times editor, Dr. Chinwoke Mbadinuju, cried foul, alleging that the then state chairman of the party, Chief J. A. Okonkwo, had already made up his mind as to whom he wanted to impose.
With that, the aspirants jointly petitioned the PDP National Exco which subsequently dissolved the State Exco, a request that was granted and a 24-man panel was sent from Abuja to conduct fresh gubernatorial primaries. But Okonkwo refused to give them the party’s register so as to frustrate the exercise which eventually produced Mbadinuju, who then enjoyed the support of two wealthy businessmen from the state, Sir Emeka Offor and Dr ABC Orjiakor. Meanwhile, this was happening at a time the submission of candidates’ lists to INEC had lapsed. Not surprisingly, that has been the story of Anambra State PDP at every election cycle since then–with different factions always submitting different lists to INEC after which the battle would shift to the courts immediately the elections were concluded.
Incidentally, Major General Bagudu Mamman (rtd) who conducted the 1998 primaries (which produced Prof ABC Nwosu) that was canceled had sent a rather instructive petition to the PDP secretariat. In the letter dated December 27, 1998 and addressed to the PDP National Electoral Appeal Panel, General Mamman wrote: “I am constrained to forward this letter to your committee in view of this decision reached to uphold the appeal forwarded by Dr. Mbadinuju, an aspirant at the just concluded primaries we conducted in Anambra state, and the implications your decision may have with respect to the overall performance of PDP in Anambra state, peoples welfare, peace and security of the PDP followership in the state…”
After making damaging allegations on how members of the PDP National Exco were collecting “bribes and gratifications” to manipulate the process, General Mamman now zeroed in on Mbadinuju: “For the avoidance of doubt, the complainant, Dr. Mbadinuju admitted buying result sheets in Abuja from the national secretariat for N1 million. Furthermore, the complainant admitted printing and forging results to win the primaries. The complainant offered bribes and inducement of up to N5 million to the National Electoral Panel (NEP), Anambra State which was out-rightly rejected.”
As if that was not disturbing enough, General Mamman added in his letter a self-incriminating statement: “The NEP Anambra viewed the exercise as an internal FAMILY AFFAIR (emphasis his) and decisive application of our powers to sanction Dr. Mbadinuju and his group would not be in the overall interest of the party in Anambra State, as the complainant lost the election despite the concessionary addition of 28,000 votes in his favour to save his face in his home local government as no election took place there, as I was physically present at Ihiala LG on the 21st December 1998.”
The pertinent question now is: How credible is an election which requires allocating bonus votes to candidates “to save face” in their respective home bases? But that is not even the issue here as Mamman ended his letter with what might have turned out a prophesy and this was in December 1998: “If by this action you are giving us an insight of the PDP substance and nature of leadership the PDP intends to offer Nigeria, then there is no hope for our country.”
Well, there is hope for our country because the people eventually replaced the PDP with “Change” even though a “Commonsense” Senator now claims Nigerians were probably being promised “Chains” without paying much attention to what some propagandists were saying. Whatever the case may be, it should worry all of us that in Anambra State, the PDP and the judiciary are enmeshed in a sordid dance of shame that appears to defy all the known rules of engagement in our fledgling democracy. But while the PDP leaders from Anambra would need to reflect on the nature of their politics which has become very disruptive to the peace and progress of the state and our country, it is also important for our judicial officers to understand that they are fast losing credibility by offering themselves as willing tools for desperate politicians.
Yesterday, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, confronted the Appeal Court Justices at their conference and he did not mince words: “The Court of Appeal, in one judicial division, ordered INEC to conduct fresh election ‘in which only the duly qualified candidates shall participate’. In another division, the Court of Appeal, under similar circumstances, nullified the election, disqualified the candidate and allowed the political party to submit the name of another candidate for the re-run election. Yet in another division, the Court of Appeal nullified the election and ordered INEC to conduct fresh election but is silent about the status of the disqualified candidate, thereby giving room for endless commentary and new rounds of litigation on the eligibility of the disqualified candidate to participate in re-run elections.”
Unfortunately, as damaging as Yakubu’s statement was, there is nothing he said that the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmud Mohammed, did not say when he spoke at the Annual Conference of the Court of Appeal in January this year. Justice Mahmud said: “As the guardians of the law, we must not only be just but also convey certainty in our justness…it bears reminding that the overriding objective of every legal system in the world is to do justice. However, this cannot be achieved where there is confusion as to the state of the law as pronounced by the court.”
On the conflicting judgements from the Court of Appeal, Justice Mohammed said: “As your lordships will agree, where an aggrieved person perceives, whether rightly or wrongly, that they will not receive justice, such a situation can indeed bode ill for the community in which he lives and can lead to acrimony and anarchy. We must not ignore the negative perception that is occasioned by conflicting judgments delivered at various divisions of the Court of Appeal. Such judicial contradictions only result in untold hardships to litigants in their quest for justice. They further cast your lordships in an unfavourable light and leave the judiciary at the mercy of innuendos, crass publications and editorials.”
Strong words from the CJN but they are not enough. Since the National Judicial Institute (NJI) has the mandate to train and educate, there is need to put in place a structure for the training and retraining of our judges. Beyond that, the National Judicial Council (NJC) will do well to beam its searchlight on Judges, especially those who sit on electoral disputes. The NJC will also need to monitor high court judges, many of who willfully misinterprete judgments of the appellate courts thereby encouraging endless litigation. The message must be clear: While the politicians can afford to dance naked in the public arena, that is a luxury those who man the temple of justice in our country can ill-afford.