THE NIGERIAN JUDICIARY – 15 YEARS OF DEMOCRACY
BY CHIEF MIKE A. A. OZEKHOME, SAN
CONSTIITUTIONL LAWYER AND HUMAN RIGHTS ACTIVIST
FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DELEGATE TO THE NATIONAL CONFERENCE.
No doubt, the Nigerian Judiciary has had to contend with powerful variegated democratic forces since 1999, forces that are at once centripetal as they are centrifugal. It has been buffeted from all sides; assailed by inglorious politicians who lost their electoral legal battles in Court; bled internally by some irredeemably corrupt Judicial elements; mocked by a non-cooperating Executive that denies it of much needed funds, and ridiculed by a legislature that makes laws for everything, except for the peace, order and good government of Nigeria. Alexander Halmiton was right when he theorised that the Judiciary is the weakest arm of Government as it has neither purse, nor arms to effect its decisions.
Inspite of these mountainous challenges, the Nigerian Judiciary can unarguably be said to have fared better than the other two arms of Government – the Legislature and the Executive. It has held its head high, above murky waters, refusing to be cowed or vanquished by the two other more powerful sister arms of Government. It has continued to serve as the bulwark against tyranny of the vociferous minority and oppression by the all conquering majority.
Even under autocratic Military dictatorships, the Judiciary refused to blow muted trumpets, inspite of the ubiquitous blaring sirens of power and sheer repressive jack-bootism.
The Nigerian Judiciary sided with the common man and woman, delivering scathing, and at times derisive judgments, against repressive Heads of state and self styled Military Presidents. In Ojukwu vs Governor of Lagos State (1986) 1 NWLR (part 18), for example, both the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court dscribed the action of the Lagos State Government in forcibly ejecting Ojukwu from his “Vilaska lodge” residence in Ikoyi, Lagos, whilst his suit against the State Government was still pending, live and extant, as amounting to “Executive lawlessness”.
In Nasiru Bello vs. Attorney General of Oyo State (1986) 2 NSCC 1257, the apex Court of Nigeria condemned the Oyo State Government for executing a convicted armed robber whose appeal was still pending before the Court. The revered late Justice Aniagolu bemoaned this dastardly act, thus:
“This is the first case in this country, of which I am aware, in which a legitimate government of this country – past or present, colonial, or indigenous – hastily and illegally snuffed off the life of an Appellant whose appeal had vested and was in being, with no order of Court upon the appeal, and with a reckless disregard for the life and liberty of the subject and the principles of the rule of law. The brutal incident has bespattered the face of the Oyo State Government with the paint brush of shame”.
In Nemi vs. A-G, Lagos State (1996) 6 NWLR, 42, at 55, the Court of Appeal innovatively held that notwithstanding that a convict was on death row, he was still entitled to challenge his torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, arising from the prolonged delay in executing him.
Thus, the Nigerian Judiciary affirmed the fundamental rights of even a convict not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment, because every minute of being left on the death row means instalmental torture and indescribable psychological trauma.
It is true that there have been isolated cases of bad eggs within the Judiciary, in terms of corruption, bribe taking, compromise of cases, et al. yes, just like in every 12, there must be a Judas Iscariot. Such isolated cases have not only been promptly dealt with by the National Judicial Council (NJC); they have also not diminished or dimmed the good work of a vast majority of hardworking Judges who have shown exceptional courage, daring bravado, and activist orientation in handing down judgements that have deepened democracy, promoted good governance, protected Civil Rights and liberties, shielded the Rule of law from assault, and fought corruption in governance.
The lofty and far reaching recommendations of my Committee on Law, Judiciary, Human Rights and Legal Reforms at the ongoing National Conference, if adopted by the Plenary session, and enshrined in a brand new constitution to be approved and adopted by the Nigerian people in a popular Referendum or plebiscite, will go a long way in empowering the Judiciary, and bestowing on it, the much needed independence and autonomy.