Seeds of Discord

by Oliver Mbamara

Decisions like that of the Supreme Court of Nigeria that voided the provisions of the controversial Electoral Act 2001, which sought to elongate the terms of council officers from three to four years, are rightfully expected of the judiciary. However, in a country where the masses seem to have lost confidence in the effectiveness and efficiency of the judiciary, the relevance of such a decision cannot be overemphasized. From what I have gathered (since I have not read the entire decision), the Supreme Court has defined certain electoral process boundaries for the National and State Assemblies. In line with the rule of law, the judiciary placed a deserved check on the incursions of the Federal Government into the legislative and executive functions of the States.

As is usually the case with all litigations, there are those who are not pleased with the outcome of the suit. Yet, for one thing, the decision was unanimous. That would make it easy to accommodate the decision, which appears precise in its purport and decisive in its effect. It is important for Nigerians to know that the judiciary can play such a significant role in the dispensation of the electoral process in Nigeria. In line with the respect for the rule of law, we must respect the decision of the supreme court of the land, and we must now move on.

If the executive and legislative arms of government require respect from the judiciary and the Nigerian populace, they must not treat verdicts of the judiciary with contempt or public condemnation – directly or indirectly. Democracy allows a litigant to express his disapproval to an unfavorable verdict. However, care must be taken in the manner such disapprovals are aired especially by members of the other arms of government. A revered judiciary is indispensable for a viable State and polity. Military regimes remain condemned because of their disregard for the rule of law, especially the suspension of the constitution and the enactment of exclusion clauses to prevent the people from challenging draconian and dictatorial acts of government in court. A democratic government must act otherwise.

The fact that the Electoral Act controversy has been fueled by political considerations makes the decision of the Supreme Court even more important. It would have been worthwhile to investigate how and why the provisions of the Act were tampered with (an action that many of us still find very appalling), after the Act was passed and forwarded for the president’s approval signature, but the decision of the supreme court may have put a cover over all that for now. At least there is a chance that the coming elections could be peaceful. All those who have sown seeds of discord and laid eggs of destruction under the wings of the Electoral Act debacle will have to look for another way of hatching their eggs. It is inevitable that these actors will find another way to achieve their ulterior objectives. Nigerians must be ready to beat them again to it.

Meanwhile, Nigerians have been assured once again that they can resort to the courts to settle issues rather than violence and infighting. One only hopes that the lower courts will follow suit. To encourage this, remunerations of officers of the judiciary must be improved, and better protection should be afforded them where necessary so they can be able to shun the temptations of bribery and the fear of persecution in the dispensation of justice. A situation where a judge flees her court and constituency due to a threat to her life must be addressed and possibly eliminated. There could be impediments on the way to a more effective and efficient judiciary, but they are surmountable.

It is remarkable that all the states in Nigeria came together to condemn and challenge the offence of the Electoral Act in court regardless of the difference in tribes, religion or party affiliation. The Governors of these states must in the same vein, allow and encourage a culture of resorting to the courts for resolution of disputes rather than a resort to violence especially with regard to local council elections and leadership. In the spirit of the rule of law, they must also encourage judicial independence and ensure appropriate allocation of funds and support for the maintenance and sustenance of the court system within their various states.

Be that as it may, the Supreme Court of Nigeria will soon face its biggest challenge yet, when the Sharia issue inevitably comes before their Lordships who in addition to their individual legal perspectives, share different religious and moral backgrounds. Until then, let us put our celebrations on hold while we try to forge ahead in the spirit of the Electoral Act 2001 decision of the Supreme Court.

It will be recalled that recently, Nigeria’s new Attorney General and Minister of Justice, Mr. Kanu Agabi (SAN) wrote all states practicing the Sharia legal system, and called upon their governors “to take measures to amend and modify the jurisdiction of the courts imposing these punishments.” He cited Section 42 (1) (a) of the Nigerian Constitution, which prohibits the discriminatory punishment of any Nigerian as the basis of his call. It will be in the interest of the Nigerian nation and its populace that the Sharia issue be fairly litigated and decided in court rather than a resort to violence, anarchy, or disregard to the due process of law.

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