Last Thursday the Supreme Court finally drew the curtain on the litigations that trailed the 2023 presidential election as it gave a verdict dismissing the appeals of the LP and PDP candidates thereby affirming the decision of the lower court. Expectedly, many people have been disappointed by the decision given their belief, rightly or wrongly, that nothing short of upturning the decision of the Presidential Election Petitions Court (PEPC) will amount to justice.
It is not my intention to go into the knotty issue of whether the court’s decision is right or not mainly given that this is not the aim of this write-up. Evidently, the frustration arising from the judgment has been so deep-cutting that some people have been casting aspersions on the legal profession in Nigeria even to the extent of describing it as useless being that the law amounts to virtually nothing in the country. I will not waste time commenting on such clearly unbridled emotions; after all, the same persons that make such comments will still send their children to go and study law or even do so themselves. Again, despite the menacing degree of corruption burdening our police force, civil service and other public institutions, I haven’t heard such nihilistic statements describing these professions as useless.
However, people’s frustration with the judiciary is still understandable. That arm of government is traditionally looked upon as the ultimate saviour when all else fail. It is the last resort when other public institutions have come short, hence the popular saying that it is the last hope of the common man.
In the context of checks and balances, the judiciary is the only arm of government that wields commanding and punitive powers over the other arms. It can use its powers of injunction, mandamus, habeas corpus etc. to command or prohibit action. More significantly, it can, by virtue of its criminal jurisdiction, punish (with fine, imprisonment or death) individual members of the other two arms. Checks and balances between the executive and the legislature, in many instances, rely on negotiations and compromises (such as seen with the recent disagreement between the US Congress and President Joe Biden regarding federal budget). On the contrary, the relationship between these two arms and the judiciary does not admit of this sort of bargain; the two arms are in no position to negotiate with the judiciary who merely issues orders, rulings, and judgments that must be obeyed by all and sundry. Succinctly put, the judiciary is the watchdog that polices all else.
In the part 3 of my write-up “Ezu River Corpses: 10 Years After and Setting Agenda For 2027” published in this column on September 23, 2023, I reflected on the above reality as follows: “[The place] of a healthy judiciary in checking our scandalous culture of impunity and institutional atrophy [cannot be overemphasized]. An efficient and upright judiciary is supremely foundational to our quest for an equitable and sane society where accountability drives progress. The courts are the enforcer of our common norms and before whom all of us should tremble irrespective of status – they’re the pivot on which equality before the law rests. However, our judiciary is far from having these vital qualities so much so that it has become an object of ridicule.
“When there is no judiciary to promptly and suitably dispense justice, the law becomes redundant and impunity takes over. Our judiciary is so much burdened by corruption and operational inefficiencies to satisfactorily fulfil this role. Too much delay in concluding trials seriously reduces the impact of that institution. The unfortunate and costly implication is that hardly do lawbreakers fear the prospect of being taken to court.
“A particular state governor who left office since 2007 had his trial linger up to 2021. Many corruption trials have been in court for several years with no end in sight. Citizens who have their rights abused have been forced to sit through a slow and unending judicial process. It took PUNCH newspaper 25 years (1996 – 2021) of a long judicial walk from the Federal High Court to the Supreme Court to finally secure a verdict that censured the DSS and ordered it to pay the sum of 25 million naira as damages to the newspaper for invading her office, destroying her working tools and arresting her editor on that sad day in 1996.
“In the face of continued unbearable delay in serving justice and the uncertainty over the integrity of the courts, many citizens lack the faith and disposition to approach any court in search of judicial redress, even though abuse of their rights occurs unceasingly every now and then. The implication is that there is little in the system to deter rights abuse… [and as well] corruption, as public officials have little to fear when they sabotage our common wellbeing through misappropriation of funds and other ills that hamper progress.”
Indeed, many of the things we lament about in this country have their root in the weakness of the judiciary. For example, the nation might have been spared all the hullabaloo about #EndSARS have we been fortunate to have a vibrant and transparent judiciary. Absence of such judiciary was a very influential factor in the birthing and nurturing of the monster called SARS in the first place. This is also true of other similar monsters that have been tormenting us as a people. Evidently, SARS was only jolted but not ended as seen in the continuous broad day extortion and other rights abuses still committed by officers of the police force even though they may no longer wear the SARS nomenclature. To finally end and bury SARS, a healthy judiciary is inevitable.
Against this backdrop, it is clear that to get it right as a people, we must get the judiciary right. However, we must not lose sight of the fact that whatever that’s happening with our judiciary is a perfect reflection of our society and whom we are. The Nigerian judiciary is a product of the Nigerian system, its personnel are selected from the same population among whom corruption is dominant. This needs to be emphasized so as to bring us to the full consciousness of the contradiction we are entrapped in whenever we demand excellence from our judiciary. The judiciary we have is the judiciary we deserve. A mango tree does not sprout oranges.
But truth be told, all those that awaited the verdict of both the PEPC and the Supreme Court, save for unfounded optimism, would, deep down in their hearts, admit that they never trusted our system of justice delivery to be anything better than our decayed society. The whole noise about “all eyes” being on the judiciary only exposes our lack of faith in that institution. What we could not achieve through institutional maturity we attempted to achieve through blackmail. But then things turned out the way they ought to, as all those “eyes” that were fixed on the judiciary proved grossly impotent to persuade or compel the courts to do whatever the “eyes” desired. But we ought to have known that where institutional decay has become firmly entrenched such as in Nigeria, public eyes often have little or no effect in influencing people’s conduct, otherwise policemen cannot keep extorting motorists in broad daylight where they’re completely ever exposed to public glares, and our lawmakers cannot be bent on lavishing public funds on luxury cars when “all eyes” have always been on their propensity for wastefulness. The same obtains with civil servants whose incurable corrupt tendencies have always been on the spotlight.
Even the politicians who have been crying wolf over the court verdict on the election know too well that we don’t have the judiciary they’re asking for. In fact, many of them have been complicit in blunting the edges of the sword of justice welded by that arm of government. At worst, they have been contributory in weakening that institution through bribery and nepotic appointments, and at best, they have been negligent in their duty towards building that institution to serve our democracy as it ought to. We all know that our judicial system is ailing, but apparently, it is only when we find ourselves in trouble and need a healthy judiciary to redeem us that we remember that we have a sick judiciary; we then begin to lament as though our problem just started today.
It is, therefore, time for us to shun needless emotions and endless self-deceit to face with all frankness the dire situation we have found ourselves in and see whether solution can come from anywhere. We cannot achieve overnight what took other nations several years to build. Fire brigade approaches won’t work here at all. We need to be proactive and begin to sow what we want to reap. No one leaves his damaged vehicle unattended to and only to cry wolf, when on a day he has an emergency journey to embark upon, he meets the vehicle in the same damaged condition.
The critical first step is to begin to discuss the problem of our judiciary beyond these mere seasonal outbursts after each flawed election cycle. In my view, we are yet to really entrench judicial reform as a key subject of national discussion. For instance, in the last general election, issues like petrol subsidy and stabilizing the naira dominated the entire space and there was little or no space to talk about the governance process, including its judicial component, that will bring about this economic good. We therefore could not engage the candidates on what their plans were on redeeming this arm of government – if they had any.
Pointedly, we need to bring – more resolutely than ever – issues related to judicial reform to the table of public discourse. We need to entrench them very boldly on the public agenda. We need to talk frankly about the corruption in the judiciary, the delay in dispensing justice, and other challenges historically burdening that institution. We need to talk about these issues in the same vigorous and relentless manner we have been talking about fuel subsidy, oil theft, inflation, and insecurity over the years because the judiciary is very critical to addressing these problems. This is a momentous challenge to opinion leaders including journalists, the academia and civil society leaders.
I have once spoken to some colleagues in the media about the idea of establishing an election debate platform to be called “Judicial Reform Arena” to organise debates among election candidates ONLY on issues related to judicial reforms – be they presidential, governorship, National Assembly or State Assembly candidates. Such candidates will mount the podium and discuss nothing but the judiciary, no other subject will be allowed. Emergence of platforms like this at different levels and in different parts of the country (all must not be national) will help in bringing the question of judicial reform to the front burner of national discourse and policy formation. Also critical to this process are academic conferences focusing on the same subject matter. The academia has a leading role here.
The goal is that with time, all of this will coalesce to a formidable national movement to reform our judiciary. Given its organic and cumulative growth, this movement will metamorphose to a force that is strong enough to stand the test of time, unrelenting until the ultimate goal is achieved. Even before this ultimate goal can be achieved, such robust and continuous discussion and debate, in the interim, more than the knee-jerk and noisy approach of “all eyes on the judiciary”, may even prove effective in influencing our judges to toe the decent path.
Right now, Imo and Kogi states are preparing for off-season governorship elections, shouldn’t we start asking the candidates what their plans are for the judiciary? Shouldn’t the debate begin immediately no matter how belated it may have been? We need to start somewhere even though the journey is a very long one. Yes, it is not a sprint but a long-distance race; in the voice of Nelson Mandela, it is “long walk to freedom.”
Henry Chigozie Duru, PhD, teaches journalism and mass communication at Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Nigeria.