AMID controversies trailing judgments of various courts handling election disputes, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, yesterday, said that public sentiments, and emotions cannot replace the law.
“The law remains the law, no matter whose interest is involved. In all we do, as interpreters of the law, we should endeavour to sever the strings of emotion from logic and assumption from fact,” he charged judges.
The presidential candidate of Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, in the 2023 elections, Atiku Abubakar, Labour Party and civil society organisations, however, flayed the CJN for his comments, saying Nigerians were losing confidence in the judiciary, considering the activities of judges in recent election matters in Kano, Zamfara and Nasarawa states.
But the CJN called for total emancipation of the judiciary from external influences, saying to guarantee the integrity of the judiciary, it must be “truly and genuinely independent in all ramifications.”
He bemoaned the fact that the judiciary had over the years struggled for fiscal autonomy, which he said would “ultimately embolden us to act without fear of intimidation or harassment from other arms of government.”
Justice Ariwoola, who lamented that rule of law in Nigeria had been questionable since 1999, however, scored the third arm of government highly in 2023.
The CJN spoke at a special session the Supreme Court held to mark the commencement of its 2023/2024 Legal Year and swearing-in of 58 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria, SANs.
He assured that despite the challenges and criticisms, the Judiciary will continue to discharge its statutory obligations without succumbing to sentimental “voices of the mob.”
He said: “Expectedly, an occasion of this nature calls for great celebration but even in the midst of that it is still necessary that we spare a moment of our time to have a deep reflection and introspection on the journey we have made so far, with a view to knowing what direction to channel our energy and available resources.
“In those areas that we have excelled, we have to commend ourselves and, as well, endeavour to shore-up the tempo of work. While in the areas of obvious shortcomings, as responsible and responsive mortals, we shall do a quick introspection and forge ahead with the right mind-set and disposition to achieve more favourable results in the course of the successive legal year.
“The Supreme Court; and by extension, the Nigerian Judiciary, has fared well in the out-gone legal year even though our high-level of resilience was brazenly taken to task by some overwhelming challenges.
“As this new legal year unfolds, we would like to assure everyone that we are determined to redouble our efforts to bring about a judiciary that Nigerians, home and abroad, will be very proud and ecstatic about.
“Our courts should be trusted at home and abroad for the high level of respect for the rule of law and the institutional and personal independence of our judiciary.
Independence of the Judiciary
“We actually expected the independence of the judiciary to be given adequate statutory protection, not just at the Federal level alone but equally at the state level, so that they could be seen to be truly and genuinely independent in all ramifications.”
Continuing, the CJN said: “The rule of law, with all its well understood facets, has been highly questionable since the advent of democratic governance in 1999. It is noteworthy that reputation can take a long time to establish but can be dissolved and completely destroyed in an instant, sometimes, inadvertently, though.
“The rule of law and the holistic independence of the judiciary should always be cherished by all. As the Chief Justice of Nigeria, I will do everything within my ability to make it remain part of my responsibility to nourish.
“The Judiciary, as it is today, is more deserving of public trust and confidence than ever before; and we are poised to reposition it for effective justice delivery to make our beloved country a destination of note in the observance of the rule of law and tenets of Constitutionalism.
“The Nigerian Judiciary, over the years, has strove assiduously to carve a reputation for great integrity and independence which will ultimately embolden us to act without fear of intimidation or harassment from the other arms of government.
“Let me state it clearly here that the true touch-stone for measuring the success of a Judicial Institution is the degree of confidence reposed in it by the public.
Role of Judiciary
“It is a solemn pledge that we, as a judicial body, are making at this occasion that we are definitely going to work more assiduously and tirelessly to make our country earn for itself the fullest respect and confidence of both the citizens and the international community.
“It is germane at this juncture, to reiterate the obvious fact that the judiciary has a special role to play in the task of achieving socio-economic goals enshrined in the Constitution.
“While maintaining their aloofness and independence, the Judges also have to be fully aware of the social changes in the task of achieving socio-economic justice for the people of our dear country against all odds.
“I wish to reiterate unequivocally that integrity is an essential quality of a judicial officer; and he must, as a matter of necessity, exhibit the standards of integrity, morality, and good behaviour which he sets for others.
“In a situation where a Judge decides a case wrongly out of motives, it shakes the faith of the litigant public; and by extension, the whole society.
“Such a judge, who does not maintain the highest standard of integrity, has no right to continue to occupy the chair as a judicial officer. In the same vein, if a judicial officer is found to be corrupt, then, he cannot be allowed to hold such a divine chair of a judge.
Sentiments, emotions can’t replace rule of law
“Judges owe the society a great duty of always deciding cases without fear or favour, affection or ill will, friend or foe. For the umpteenth time, I wish to honestly assure all judicial officers that if you are discharging your functions as an upright judicial officer by genuinely following the norms, then you have no cause to be afraid or feel intimidated by the often frivolous complaints or vitriolic attacks made by persons having vested interest.
“However, I expect every judicial officer to work very hard and also be very honest and courteous to the litigants, witnesses and members of the bar, and discharge all your judicial functions with all humility at your command. Even while doing this, it is still necessary to have at the back of your minds that public opinions, sentiments or emotions can never take the place of the law in deciding the cases that come before you.
“The law remains the law, no matter whose interest is involved. In all we do, as interpreters of the law, we should endeavour to sever the strings of emotion from logic and assumption from fact.
“We should never be overwhelmed by the actions or loud voices of the mob or crowd and now begin to confuse law with sentiment or something else in deciding our cases.
“Nevertheless, unnecessary and unwarranted utterances are bound to embarrass not only others, but the judge himself; thus what should be asked, should be asked, and what should not be asked, should be avoided.
“I admonish our judges to, as usual, receive what is tendered in court and eschew what is against the law and facts after thorough analysis and assimilation both in and out of court, which exercise is, of course, part of judgeship.
“Caesar’s wife must be above board! Your image and reputation both inside and outside the Court must be pristine and crystal clear to all and sundry.
“Like I said earlier, be bold in all your judgments by deciding cases without fear or favour, because fear and favour come in many hues and colours. For instance, fear of one’s own past, of peer pressure, of public criticism, etc.
“Like some people often misconstrue, favour does not only come in monetary terms, but also through nepotism, personal bias and prejudices. We should all know that if the faith of the people is to be maintained in the Judiciary, then the river of judicial process has to be kept pure.
“I am saying all these now because I will never have this great privilege and opportunity to address the galaxies of legal luminaries, judicial icons and distinguished personalities in the justice sector of our dear nation in another legal year of the Supreme Court as Chief Justice of Nigeria in my entire lifetime again.”
Constitution amendment to reduce cases at S-Court
While calling for a constitutional amendment to limit the cases that make it to the Supreme Court, the CJN said that 1,271 cases, consisting of motions and appeals, were filed at the apex court between September 12, 2022 and July 11, 2023.
“Out of these, we heard 388 political appeals, 215 criminal appeals, and 464 civil appeals.
“Similarly, the court considered a total number of 49 criminal motions, 153 civil motions, and 2 political motions.
“Between the 30th day of September, 2022 and the 11th day of July, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a total number of 251 judgments.
“Out of these, 125 were political appeals, 81 were civil appeals and 45 were criminal appeals.
“Within the period under review (precisely 10 months’ duration), a total number of 91 Rulings were delivered by the Honourable Court.”
S-Court justices to be increased to 21
He assured that new justices would soon be appointed to the Supreme Court to bring the full complement to 21.
NJC ready to receive petitions against election tribunal judges
On election cases, the CJN, called for aggrieved litigants that have evidence against any tribunal to forward petitions to the National Judicial Council, NJC.
“I expect members of the public who have any complaints bordering on any form of untoward behaviour or misapplication of the law by any member of the tribunals to channel such to the National Judicial Council, NJC, for prompt action, as I will not condone any form of malfeasance or nonchalance from any judicial officer in the tribunal or regular Court,” he added.
AGF tasks new SANs on professionalism, others
Meanwhile, in his remarks at the event, the Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Prince Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, tasked the new SANs on professionalism, warning them not to engage in media trials.
“The doctrine of subjudice enjoins lawyers and even members of the public to refrain from commenting and discussing live cases. You should not be seen breaching this doctrine,” the AGF added.
CJN’s confession of external influence’s troubling —Atiku’s aide
Mr. Phrank Shaibu, Special Assistant on Public Communications to former Vice President and Peoples Democratic Party, PDP 2023 Presidential Candidate, Atiku Abubakar, described the CJN’s comments to the effect that the judiciary was not devoid of external influence as troubling.
He told Vanguard: “The confession by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Kayode Ariwoola that the judiciary in Nigeria is not devoid of external influences deserves the troubling attention of Nigerians.
“For any circumspect reason, what the CJN said was technically a Save Our Soul declaration. But the revelation is not any different from what eminent jurists and members of the Bar have been saying, the justice system in Nigeria is faulty.
“A number of senior lawyers and even recently, retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Muhammend Dattijo, have alluded to the rot in the judicial process in Nigeria. What the CJN thus ought to have done, was to apologise to Nigerians and commit his tenure to a reform of the system that he superintends.
Lost hope of common man
“The judiciary in any society, especially in a democracy, is expected to be the last hope of the common man. But from all the indications that we have seen, the judiciary under Justice Ariwoola has remained the lost hope of the common man.
“There are irrefutable reasons to conclude that judgments are delivered deliberately to patronize certain political interests, as there are plethora of instances where the courts in Nigeria have made declarations that are not just controversial but also stand against the letters of the constitution.
“Although Justice Ariwoola blamed the dysfunction in the judiciary on lack of independence, and intimidation from the other arms of government, he also ought to have interrogated the wild allegations of corruption in the judiciary.
“Justice Ariwoola should know that for our courts to be trusted at home and abroad, there should be a process of investigation into the controversial judgments which the courts have made thus far.”
CSOs slam CJN
Meanwhile, a host of civil society leaders have criticized the CJN for giving the Judiciary pass mark in 2023, saying that the faulty verdicts of many courts on the 2023 general polls could harm Nigeria’s democracy.
Chair of the Board of Trustees for Amnesty International (Nigeria), Head of Transparency International (Nigeria), and Executive Director of the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Mr. Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, expressed dissatisfaction and called for greater transparency, accountability, and respect for the rule of law within the judiciary.
“If the CJN were to be honest with himself, he would admit that Nigerians are expressing dissatisfaction, largely with the verdicts of courts and tribunals that do not conform to the provisions of the law and a sense of justice,” he stated.
Rafsanjani added that the confidence of Nigerians in the judiciary is waning daily, which is not a positive sign for the country’s democracy.
He also raised concerns about the commercialization of the judiciary, with some political parties stating they would no longer challenge electoral fraud in court due to a belief that the judiciary now serves the highest bidder.
Rafsanjani called for the judiciary to retrace its steps, warning that its current path has caused “a great deal of anger and frustration in the hearts of millions of our citizens, which is not a good sign for our democracy.”
Also, Mr. Eze Onyekpere, a lawyer and director of the Centre for Social Justice, CSJ, said: “There is an unfortunate level of arrogance in the Chief Justice of Nigeria describing valid concerns of Nigerians as ‘mob action’ simply because they have criticized the performance of the judges.”
He further criticized the CJN’s attitude towards criticism, stating that judges are public servants and should be open to criticism just like any other profession.
He called on the CJN to ‘come down from his high horse’, pointing out that lawyers were also expressing misgivings about various verdicts.
“Until the judges come down from their high horses, they will continue to act like touts in their conduct and utterances,” Onyekpere said.
Societies fail when public confidence in Judiciary fails – LP
In a chat with Vanguard, National Publicity Secretary of the party, Mr. Obiora Ifoh, said the judiciary plays a critical role in keeping human societies from descending into chaos, hence the need for judicial officers to live above board.
His words: “What we expect from our Judiciary is justice. Justice is critical to everything we do as human beings. In every sane society, anyone who is wronged no matter how highly or lowly placed should be able to approach the court and get justice.
“ When this is done, public confidence is boosted in the rule of law, the judiciary and ultimately society will be the better for it. But when evidence is ignored and judgments, which turn logic on its head, then there is a problem.
“This is why we, as a party, have taken our petition with respect to the Enugu Governorship Election to the Supreme Court with the hope that the miscarriage of justice done in the lower courts will be addressed.”