A nation or society can live with an incompetent government, said Othman Dan Fodio, but not with injustice as a way of life. Courts are called temples of justice the world over. The symbol of justice is a blind-folded maiden with a sword in her hand because the scale of justice doesn’t care whose ox is gored. But Nigerian courts have increasingly been acquiring the reputation of temples of judgments, not justice. There is perhaps at no greater point in our national history than now when public confidence in the judiciary is at an all-time low. Even serving Supreme Court justices have been disgraced in public over allegations of unbridled graft. Things are so bad that, these days, when a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) wins a difficult case, people, far from congratulating him or her, often ask how much the Learned Silk paid!
Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme of the Court of Appeal in Awka, Anambra State, will go down in history as the proverbial Daniel who has come to judgment, with her recent pronouncement on the monumental mess into which lawyers and judges are turning the Nigerian legal system owing to filthy lucre from mostly politicians. Ruling last Monday, August 2, on the motion by Mr. Chike Onyemenem, SAN, seeking to halt the execution of the judgment of Mr. Justice Charles C. Okaa of the Anambra State High Court in Awka affirming the nomination of erstwhile Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) governor, Professor Chukwuma Charles Soludo, as the candidate of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA) in the November 6 gubernatorial election in the state, Mr. Justice Nwosu-Iheme stated that both judges who deliver judgments on cases beyond their territorial jurisdiction and the lawyers who deliberately take such cases to them need to be sanctioned on grounds of professional misconduct.
This is the background to Justice Nwosu-Iheme’s pronouncement. On June 28, Justice Musa Ubale of the Jigawa State High Court at Birnin Kudu delivered a judgment on a case brought by agents of Chukwuma Umeoji of the House of Representatives claiming that Jude Okeke had become the APGA acting national chairman following, as they claimed, the removal of Edozie Njoku as the substantive national chairman. Meanwhile, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has up to this moment not heard of any of these persons as the APGA chairman. The Constitution vests INEC with the power to register and regulate political parties for purposes of participating in elections.
The APGA chairman known to INEC and the public for the past four years, Chief Victor Oye, was not joined in the suit nor was the party aware of the legal action. Umeoji, who appears to want to be the APGA candidate in the November election at all costs, had purchased his nomination form from Oye in May, in recognition that Oye was the national chairman, but now claims that Oye ceased being the party’s chairman in 2009! The magic of it all is that Justice Ubale delivered judgment, not only recognizing Okeke as the APGA acting national chairman who took over from Njoku, but also giving the consequential order enabling him to send to INEC the name of the APGA candidate for the governorship election in Anambra State holding on November 6. Okeke now submitted Umeoji’s name as the candidate.
Umeoji didn’t participate in the APGA primary election of June 23, 2021, which was broadcast live on television networks in Nigeria and which Soludo won by some 93.7 per cent. Umeoji was disqualified because, it has been reported in the media, he was suspected to be working in cahoots with another party to betray APGA in the November election.
Why would someone go from Awka to as far as Birnin Kudu, almost 700 kilometres apart, over an issue that happened in Anambra State or the South-East? Who has ever done something so bizarre and succeeded in Nigeria? Apparently recognizing that they were in gross violation of the principle of territorial jurisdiction, the same people went to the Imo State High Court in Owerri, where Justice B.C. Iheka, on July 30, delivered judgment stating that Okeke was the APGA acting chairman. It will not be surprising if the same people move to neighbouring Abia State for another judgment!
Truly, the judicial system and the legal profession have never stooped this low in Nigeria. But there are sometimes glimmers of hope. When Umaru Said, on July 28, 2021, claimed at the Court of Appeal in Kano to represent APGA in the suit seeking to set aside the Jigawa State High Court judgment, Justices Tsamani, Maiwada Abdullahi and Musale cautioned him. The caution could have come from Justice Nwosu-Iheme of the Court of Appeal in Awka. In other words, it would seem there is greater concern for professional integrity at the appellate courts, which are naturally manned by more experienced and capable judges.
There are, thankfully, institutional mechanisms to check the professional misconduct of legal professionals. An important feature of the 1999 Constitution, as amended, is the creation of the National Judicial Council (NJC). The NJC has been doing a marvelous job, though much remains to be done. It has taken stern measures against the behaviour of such judges as Wilson Egbo-Egbo, Stanley Nnaji, Okechukwu Opene and Adeleye Adedoyin, who were thrown out of the Bench over the Anambra election quagmire. Why haven’t some judges learned from the experience of these former judges, especially Nnaji of the Enugu State High Court who was dismissed for ordering the removal of the then Anambra governor, Senator Chris Ngige? It was Nnaji’s tough luck that he died in Enugu on May 27, 2021, the way he did.
The Disciplinary Committee of the Nigerian Bar Association needs to learn to be more active. There are more erring lawyers than judges, yet the NJC looks far more alive to its responsibility.
The massive corruption in mostly courts of first instance is a major contributor to declining direct foreign investment in Nigeria. These courts are not considered good enough, in contrast to Chinese courts, which, though theoretically under the Communist Party, are considered good enough by international investors. The few Western investors who come to Nigeria insist on the provision of arbitration in London, rather than Nigeria, in the memoranda of understanding, should disputes arise.
Most Nigerians seem to underestimate the profound implications and dimensions of a corrupt judiciary. Othman Dan Fodio was really right: A society can survive an incompetent government, but not injustice. Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme is the modern-day Daniel who has truly come to judgment. History will be kind to her.
•Dr Onyegbu is of the University of Nigeria, Enugu Campus