Judiciary as catalyst for deepening democratic process

Taiye Agbaje, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) takes a look at the judiciary as a major vehicle for entrenching democratic processes in the society.

State and individuals are accountable to law

Former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, described the rule of law as “principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the state itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards.

The late Annan further said this “requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and legal transparency.”

He stressed that the independence and impartiality of the judiciary would help to safeguard the rule of law and access to justice.

An Abuja-based legal practitioner, Sylvanus Ugwu, concurred

He said that since political rights are human rights, the challenges of preventing electoral violence and rigging, guaranteeing a level playing field and correcting flaws in vote collation to ensure truly representative electoral processes should be the main concern of stakeholders in Nigeria today.

How important is the judiciary in deepening democratic culture in Nigeria?

Ugwu said that recent developments in Nigeria have validated the role of the judiciary as indispensable. “This is so because litigation up to the Supreme Court has become the normal practice of electoral decision-making in the country,” he noted.

He said that developments associated with the 2019 general elections showed that the judiciary must brace up to the responsibility of ensuring justice in election matters.

Besides the Supreme Court verdict on the Presidential Election, no fewer than seven governorship elections were also decided by the apex court. Precisely, between Jan. 14 and Jan. 21, the Supreme Court delivered judgments in Imo, Kano, Sokoto, Bauchi, Plateau, Adamawa and Benue states governorship elections.

Also on December 19, 2019, the apex court decided the governorship polls of Oyo, Katsina, Lagos, Kaduna, Ogun, Ebonyi, Akwa Ibom and Nasarawa states.

The memory of the Supreme Court’s judgment of May 24, 2019, where the apex court sacked all the elected candidates of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Zamfara for the 2019 General Elections because the party  failed to conduct primaries in accordance with party’s rules cannot be forgotten so soon.

The court declared the party with second highest votes and with required spread as winners of the polls. PDP was the beneficiary of the court’s verdict.

On January 14, the apex court upturned the election of the PDP’s candidate in the March 8, 2019 governorship election in Imo, Emeka Ihedioha and declared Hope Uzodinma of the APC as duly elected.

In the same vein, the Supreme Court on Feb. 13 removed David Lyon of the APC as governor-elect of Bayelsa barely 24 hours to his inauguration. INEC later declared PDP’s candidate, Diri Duoye, as the winner.

Lyon’s election was nullified on the grounds that his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, presented false information to INEC in support of his qualification for the Nov. 16, 2019 governorship election in the state.

Ugwu said that though the aggrieved political parties are calling for review of the Zamfara, Imo and Bayelsa judgments, the judiciary has, in no small measure, contributed to deepening the country’s democratic process.

Judiciary as custodian and guardian of law

He described the judiciary as “a custodian and guardian of the rule of law.” According to him, the moment the judiciary upholds, implements and works religiously and conscientiously, the rule of law will be entrenched in our governmental and societal practices and that will only deepen democratic practices because democracy is built around the rule of law.

Ugwu noted that though the Nigerian judiciary had not failed in deepening democracy, it had not lived up to its responsibility either. He said that if the role of the judiciary must be felt in deepening democracy in Nigeria, “we need a judicial reform.

“The judicial reform should basically be in the direction of reviewing appointment of judges to ensure that it is based on merit and to ensure that persons of unimpeachable character are selected.”

Ugwu said the reform should also consider the remuneration of judges, and added that the reform should ensure financial autonomy for the judiciary to reduce interferences from other arms of government.

“More importantly, there should be an amendment to the constitution to accommodate judges and heads of courts with regards to immunity.  Judges should have immunity too from arrest and prosecution,” he added.

Ugwu further suggested that erring judges should only be investigated and recommended to National Judicial Council (NJC) for sanctions, adding that the power of the president or governor to suspend a judge should be revoked and conferred solely on the NJC.

Mr Modibbo Bakari, also a legal practitioner, said the role of the judiciary in deepening democracy is enshrined in Section 6 of the 1999 Constitution and other relevant sections of the constitution.

“When you say judiciary, it comprises the court of law and the election petition tribunals, as special courts in respect of democratic process in this country.

“So, the judiciary has been performing its functions, it has been doing it very well, notwithstanding there are some obstacles here and there that are inhibiting the performance of the judiciary,” he said.

Bakari, who noted that the conduct of some judicial officers left much to be desired, said: “But generally speaking, the judiciary is doing its best.”

According to him, most of the elected leaders now, substantial part of them, are on their positions based on the mandate of the judiciary not because of the `mandate’ INEC gave them.

“This is so because INEC finished its work and the aggrieved candidates took the matters to various courts, election petition tribunals or up to Supreme Court either as pre-election or post-election matters,” he said.

Bakari called on the executive and legislative arms to always respect and obey the rule of law and court orders. “Anything contrary to that is a rape on the judiciary,” he said.

Challenges of judiciary

The legal practitioner, however, enumerated the challenges impeding the performance of the judiciary in deepening democratic culture in the country. He said: “Some of them are human factors; some are corruption-related issues like any other corruption cases in public places.

“Judiciary’s name is not spared; it is not also safe from the crippling virus of corruption in various sectors of our public service.”

He drew attention to the welfare and condition of service of judicial officers, which he described as very poor. “Judicial officers have to be given working materials,  many working materials are lacking in most of the courts in Nigeria.

“In some states, court officials carry record books to business centres to type court judgments. If you ask them, they say they don’t have materials, they don’t have functional typewriters, computers and other related accessories in their offices.

“Again, we don’t have maintenance and accountability culture. Contract is being inflated and there is no supply of such materials,” he lamented.

Bakari said apart from the name, the courtrooms, the court buildings and the sitting chairs, it was disheartening that most courts, especially at the state level, lacked the paraphernalia to effectively deliver on their mandate,

He reiterated the need to review the condition of service of the judicial officers and regular training and restraining.

Contributing, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Ahmed Raji, said: “the judiciary can be a catalyst to strengthening democracy by upholding the rule of law and ensuring that the results of the primary elections are not tampered with by the parties.

“When political parties conduct primaries and Mr A emerges and a party now wants to impose Mr B, judiciary should come to the rescue of Mr A who has emerged so that from the party’s primary, from their conduct in the primary, the judiciary should assist the winner to reclaim his or her mandate. That is democracy from the source.”

Raji said electoral offenders should also be made to face the full wrath of the law in order to put an end to misconduct before, during and after elections.

With necessary reforms, the judiciary will live up to its constitutional mandate of deepening the rule of law and by extension democracy.

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