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POLITICAL FRIVOLITY: THE DANGERS OF JUDICIAL INTERVENTION

By NBF News
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It is becoming commonplace for those who wish to create obstacles for their opponents in democratic contests in Nigeria to embark on frivolous and unnecessary court challenges. This is a dangerous, not to say, demeaning, practice where the maintenance of legal accountability and discipline in the society is concerned.

Many of the issues that are brought before the courts for arbitration on political grounds are hardly fundamental issues of principle. They are often opportunistic attempts to force the courts to delay contests poised to go against the interests of the petitioners, rather than efforts to get judgments that reflect genuine justice for the majority of the people.

This presumption was clearly present in the run-up to the recent elections in Bayelsa State. Even now when the election has been conducted and completed there are still a plethora of such court cases outstanding as a result of the gubernatorial poll in that state. In fact, a Supreme Court ruling was necessary to sanction the conduct of the poll and in spite of this there was need for an adjournment to be handed down by the apex court in another challenge so that the contest could proceed as scheduled.

These actions tend to undermine the public's respect for the judiciary. It is imperative that this respect should be maintained if the democratic process is to become an unassailable and credible system of governance in any nation. At the same time it is of equal importance that recourse to judicial arbitration should be a last resort rather than a regular route of protest. The latter course is becoming the norm in Nigeria and it does not bode well for the future of the democracy that we claim to be enshrining in our society. Too many politically flavoured judgements, especially from the Supreme Court will tend to suggest to the minds of ordinary observers that these judgments are politically tainted rather than objectively attained.

The Bayelsa circumstance was peculiar in many ways, but the key issue was that the Governor, Chief Timipre Sylva, who was being challenged, had actually become extremely unpopular while in office. It was a matter of co-incidental misfortune that he was a product of his party's flawed system of selection in the first place. As a result attempts to subject his wish to continue in office to the acceptance or rejection of a popular vote was deemed dangerous for the party's fortunes in Bayelsa State. Since that party is the PDP, which holds Federal power, and the President is from Bayelsa State, this compounded the process of the selection of an alternative flag-bearer for the party when various judicial interventions made this necessary. First of all there was the tribunal's judgment that found that his first election was so fundamentally flawed that he was removed from office within a year.

However the electoral laws that govern the process of choice in Nigeria's present-day system are so skewed that they do not leave room for sanctions against elected officials who are adjudged to have taken advantage of fraudulent practices. As a result the Governor simply used the power granted him by one condemned election to manipulate another even less transparent one and return himself to power.

We have no doubt that if he had agreed to keep a low profile and simply serve his dubious term in silent acquiescence he might have survived for two full terms, but he proved to be both stubborn and openly defiant in his relations with those who had helped him hijack the mandate in the first place. He portrayed his government as being besieged by detractors from both within and outside of his party and appealed to the people of the state to resist attempts to replace him as the party's candidate.

If the above narrative makes him sound like a representative of the rights of the people nothing could be further from the truth. Sylva compounded his political problems by behaving in ways that caused many observers to regard him as erratic and irresponsible. Ironically this was not what led to the plethora of judicial challenges surrounding attempts to replace him. Instead it was his fellow-travellers and sympathisers who filled the courts with petitions against the party for seeking to exercise its fundamental right to reject a candidate and substitute him or her with a more acceptable replacement. Serious challenges to the legality and effectiveness of Sylva's conduct in office were left to the arena of political discourse in the media and hardly tested in the courts.

On the other hand the Sylva Administration was soon being championed by an unholy conglomeration of hangers-on and praise-singers. Many of these had no qualms about using distinctly abusive language to excoriate his critics and perceived detractors. In the latter stages of the battle much of the media support for Sylva and his government took on a distinctly slanderous tone but none of the victims seemed to be heading to the courts for redress. In a way this has helped to support the dysfunctional assumption that Sylva was a champion of the cause of the people who was being tyrannised by powerful forces. Again nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact the Sylva machine had shown remarkable ability to survive and embarrass the powerful central authority of the Presidency during his tenure in office. Many of those who are now blaming the President for Sylva's removal were the very ones who had questioned the resolve and strength of Dr. Jonathan when Sylva was riding high. Now that the President has allowed the party to exercise its own prerogative of choice these critics are rushing to the courts to justify the unjustifiable.

Nigeria's judiciary will be culpable in the failure rather than sustenance of the democratic will if it continues to be manipulated by frivolous political opportunists. This is a certainty because the use of judicial fiat to legitimise democratic choice cannot be sustained indefinitely. Sooner or later the process will confuse itself and undermine the fundamental principles of popular will and public trust. When this occurs the system will implode and its continuation will be challenged either by an explosion of public protest or the collapse of internal order in the institutions of political rule..

The judiciary does not have the coercive force to impose such order by itself and those agencies of security and order on which it depends for the enforcement of its decisions are not so immune to public disenchantment that they can counted upon to always remain above the fray. It is this circumstance that makes it imperative that the process of arbitration for electoral contestation as well as for the selective process within the parties should be circumscribed and isolated from certain sections of the judicial process wherever possible.

The Bayelsa circumstance needs to be studied and used as a test case for reform of the processes of judicial intervention. A situation in which a court is being asked to pronounce on the issue of whether a party has the right to choose a particular individual over another appears to be an issue too trivial for the hallowed halls of the highest court of the land. Nigeria's judiciary needs to be spared the task of being embroiled in the frivolous antics of the political class. If it is to maintain its dignity and objectivity as an instrument of justice it must avoid the dangers of unnecessary intervention in the process of democratic contestation.