There is a famous scene in Tunde Kelani’s movie, ‘Ti oluwa Ni ile’, which speaks to a time like this in our country. At his meeting with the two young men who were trying to co-opt him into the deal to sell a piece of sacred land which belongs to the entire community, Oloye Otun (the inimitable Kareem Adepoju aka Baba Wande) felt he was being short-changed. He had been offered N50, 000 out of the N200, 000 he was told the land would be sold for. In assuring him that each would take N50, 000 while the remaining N50, 000 was reserved for a lawyer, it became very clear that the whole transaction was centred on the use of court process to legitimise what was not only fraudulent but also against tradition. And the community title holder who ordinarily should be a custodian of that tradition was central to the plot.
We can easily draw parallel between that scene and the judgement delivered on Tuesday by the Supreme Court on the Imo State gubernatorial contest. The man allegedly at the centre of the unprecedented judicial assault is a deputy police commissioner who authenticated ‘results’ dismissed as spurious by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) officials and were considered strange to all the other candidates except Senator Hope Uzodinma who conjured it. Yet at the end of the day, that was what the Supreme Court relied upon to hand the governorship of Imo State to a man who came fourth in the election.
We must recall that gubernatorial elections were held across the country on 9th March 2019. According to the results declared by INEC for Imo State, Emeka Ihedioha polled 273,404 votes followed by Uche Nwosu who garnered 190,364 votes and then Ifeanyi Araraume who secured 114,676 votes. Hope Uzodinma came fourth with 96,458 votes. But with the addition by the Supreme Court of contentious votes from 388 polling units, Uzodinma’s tally now reached 309,753 while the votes by others remain unchanged. But the absurdity of that judicial arithmetic was brought to light yesterday on Twitter by @dondekojo: “Just ran the numbers again. According to @inecnigeria website. This is the total results for Imo State. With 823,743 accredited voters and 714,362 votes. With the new number from the Supreme Court, the votes go up to 948k which is accredited voters. More votes than accredited voters.”
If the Supreme Court based its judgment on a tally of votes higher than the total number of accredited voters, then the Justices stand accused of mimicking the vices they are meant to correct in the society. Even the drama surrounding the composition of the panel that sat on the case is a compelling story on its own. On Monday, following his announcement that one of the Justices (who turned out to be Justice John Inyang Okoro), was ill, the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Mohammed suspended sitting until the next day. Meanwhile, on the panel was Justice Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta who has been having a running battle with the State Security Service (SSS) and would be sitting on such a panel for the first time since his travails begun. And then there was Justice Aminu Sanusi who is due for retirement in the next couple of weeks. Instructively, it was on the basis of his imminent retirement that Justice Sanusi was believed to have been recused from another election panel on 17th December last year. But he was allowed to sit on the Imo panel! At the end, it didn’t matter that Uzodinma’s All Progressives Congress (APC) did not even win a single seat in the Imo State House of Assembly, despite the fact the election was held on the same day.
Let me be clear here. It is an open secret that Emeka Ihedioha is my friend. But my concern in this matter goes beyond friendship. Democracy is about the people deciding who rules them. While it is the responsibility of the court to settle disputes, including on electoral matters, it is wrong to render the votes of the electorate ineffectual on the basis of reasons that are difficult to understand. And when such is done in a manner that leaves question mark on the integrity of those who preside over the temple of justice in the country, it should worry all of us. I have interrogated this issue in the past. For instance, in my column on 17th March 2016 titled, ‘Judicial Black Market: Anambra as Case Study’, I wrote that “it is not only elections that are rigged in Nigeria, many judgements, especially on election petition matters, are now also traded.”
For a long time in our country, when many politicians go for elections, part of the preparation has always been the plot to use the tribunal to upturn the verdicts of the people in the event that the results do not go their way. Whatever may therefore be the merit of election tribunals, it should worry critical stakeholders that Judges are replacing the electorates to determine who win elections. That has encouraged all manner of electoral petitions. According to INEC, over 1,689 cases were filed in different courts in connection with the 2019 general election. The commission said about 890 of the cases were pre-election matters arising from the conduct of political party primary elections, while 799 were election petitions at the various tribunals across the country. Of the contested 1,490 federal and state legislative seats, about 776 (52.08%) were decided by the courts.
Meanwhile, for those who have been calling me to ask after Ihedioha, he is in good spirits. He is obviously disappointed by the judicial outcome on which he has no control but Ihedioha is a strong character. He will be fine. I was with him for much of yesterday so I can attest to that. But the greater implication of what happened is the danger it poses to our democracy as it has further expanded the manuals of election rigging. From the Supreme Court judgement on Imo State, neither those who cast the ballots nor those who count them now matter in Nigeria. That message will not be lost on our politicians. All they now need to do is get their own result sheets ready and on election day, try and force them on INEC officials. Even if such spurious results put together with the connivance of some senior police officers are rejected by the electoral umpire, the courts are there to complete the job!
Ordinarily, the finality of its judgments ought to dictate that those who adjudicate in the highest court in the land leaves no room for elementary doubts on the logic and parameters for the justice they dispense. What makes this judgment troublesome is the possibility that a mathematical error may have been entered as the basis by the apex court to determine who governs a state. Worse still, the questionable composition of the presiding panel of judges on the matter leaves serious doubts. The ultimate reliance on the evidence of the police, a non-electoral witness, in deciding the total votes cast is equally worrisome. That police evidence was admitted over and above that of INEC on admissible votes is itself suspect in the public mind. Given the reputation of the police and the fact INEC is the body statutorily responsible for the conduct of elections and declaration of results, this is indefensible.
Taken together, there are far too many grounds for inconsistencies and loopholes on which lawyers and the general public now question both the integrity and indeed the professional competence of the Supreme Court. It is a sad day for the nation if the apex court displays traits that undermine confidence in the quality of justice available to the people. It is even more tragic when the slant of decisions tempts the public to suspect that these respected men and women may have succumbed to partisan pressures.
On the whole, the damage election petition cases have done to our judiciary is enormous. In recent years, we have seen courts assuming jurisdictions they do not have. As a result of this anomaly, other cases that the courts are primarily established to cater for now suffer. A simple contractual dispute takes years to decide because judges are busy with election cases since they have to stop hearing other matters. And because some judges make a kill while serving as members of these tribunals, the lobby to be enlisted is usually intense. It is therefore no surprise that the Court of Appeal is riddled with conflicting judgments. Yet, this happens only on election matters.
On 16th March 2016, INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, spoke to this at a conference of Appeal Court Justices in Abuja: “The Court of Appeal, in one judicial division, ordered INEC to conduct fresh election ‘in which only the duly qualified candidates shall participate’. In another division, the Court of Appeal, under similar circumstances, nullified the election, disqualified the candidate and allowed the political party to submit the name of another candidate for the re-run election. Yet in another division, the Court of Appeal nullified the election and ordered INEC to conduct fresh election but is silent about the status of the disqualified candidate, thereby giving room for endless commentary and new rounds of litigation on the eligibility of the disqualified candidate to participate in re-run elections.”
All said, I want to make it clear that I have much respect for our men and women on the bench. In fact, in all the years that I have written this column, if there is one institution I try to defend, it is the judiciary. It is not because Judges are infallible that I do that but rather because the institution is central to holding a functioning society together. But in the light of some recent judgements that clearly do not advance public good, it will be a disservice if we do not speak out against the growing perversion in the justice sector.
In my piece on 3rd January 2018 titled ‘When Judges Imperil Democracy’, I wrote: “At all times and in all circumstances, the role of the courts as the interpreter of the law, resolver of disputes and defender of the Constitution, requires that Judges abide by their oath. That explains why a judiciary debilitated by, or prone to, all manner of misconduct, including corruption and political interference, is a danger to society. Sadly, we can see the evidence of this in our polity and it is important for critical stakeholders to understand that we cannot continue like this if our nation must develop and thrive.”
The fact that this submission, made two years ago, retains its resonance should keep all of us awake.