Barristers & Solicitors
2023: A Timely Caution to Tribunal Judges

As one of the leading stakeholders in Nigeria’s quest to achieving free, fair and credible elections in 2023, the judiciary, headed by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, last week inaugurated some judicial officers to adjudicate electoral disputes with stern warning against recklessness or abuse of power and public trust, Alex Enumah writes

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola last week cautioned judges appointed to resolve disputes from next year’s general election, against corrupt practices. He warned that he would not condone any act of recklessness or abuse of power and public trust from the judicial officers.

Justice Ariwoola spoke at the inauguration of the members of the 2023 Election Petitions Tribunals at the National Judicial Institute (NJI) in Abuja. He said the task of adjudicating electoral disputes from the forthcoming 2023 polls “is not an undertaking to be handled with levity.”

The CJN admonished the judges to discharge their responsibilities with honesty, integrity and transparency adding that, they should do what is right in our law books and in order to etch their names in gold. He advised the judges to conduct their responsibilities “within the ambit of the law and the oath that has just been administered on you.”

According to him, “as the Chief Justice of Nigeria, I will not condone any act of recklessness, abuse of power and public trust. Discharge your onerous responsibilities with honesty, integrity and transparency. Do what is right in our law books and you will have your names etched in gold.

“Your lordships should count yourselves worthy to be so entrusted with this humongous responsibility of deciding the fate of those that would be contesting elections into various political offices in the country in 2023. You are not known to possess some supernatural powers to perform wonders; I can confidently assure you that the society will certainly expect the impossible from you as members of Election Petition Tribunals.

“Therefore, I will not condone any act of recklessness, abuse of power and public trust. This is a rare privilege and you must give a good account of yourselves. There is virtually nothing that has not been seen or heard before, but you should be ready to see and hear more, especially as you begin to adjudicate on election matters in 2023.

“Even though I rejoice with you on this very important appointment, I still sympathise with you for the many troubles, inconveniences, verbal assaults and all sorts of uncomplimentary remarks that will be made about you by the various litigants. We are all human, no doubt, but you display the humanism in you by doing those extraordinary things that people would ordinarily say you cannot do.

“That is what distinguishes those with integrity and passion for success from those with unenviable pedigree and dysfunctional moral compass’’. 

Justice Ariwoola noted that trust is a burden but judicial officers must discharge it with utmost sincerity, honesty and transparency because conscience is an open wound healed only by the truth. He warned them that all eyes are on them and that they should therefore always remember that their conduct will be publicly dissected and thoroughly scrutinised.

“You must rise and operate above every sentiment that might play out in the course of your adjudication in the various tribunals. There is no doubt that temptations, tribulations, intimidations and even sheer blackmails may be unleashed on you; but as thoroughbred judicial officers, you must gird your loins to rise above them and do what will earn you accolades from your creator, and also from the court of public opinion.

“There is no mountain too high to scale; and there is no goal too difficult to achieve as far as you have firmly resolved to attain greater heights in life. Do what is right in our law books and you will have your names etched in gold. Do what is at variance with your conscience and you will get a scar that will terminally dent your ascension to greater heights in life. Be guided by good conscience and enjoy the best that the Nigerian Judiciary can offer you,’’ he explained.

Earlier in a welcome address, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, whose court coordinates and serves as the secretariat for election petitions tribunal across the country, acknowledged that Nigeria’s judiciary was going through trying times. She advised members of the tribunals “not to allow yourselves to be used as conduit pipes for evil machinations.”

Justice Dongban-Mensem said election petition decisions must be based on their clear understanding of the facts and application of the laws which they swore to uphold upon their appointment as judges.

“You must resist any form of pressure and influence as well as temptation that may come your way. Democracy is not just about the conduct of elections but the protection of the outcome of such elections by way of adjudication of disputes arising therefrom,” the appellate court President charged the judges.

A total of 307 judges will be serving on Election Petitions Tribunals set up to adjudicate disputes that may arise from the 2023 elections.

Section 285 of the Constitution and Section 130 of the Electoral Act states that the Election Petition Tribunal shall be constituted not later than 30 days before the election and open its registry for business seven days before the election.

Giving a breakdown of the composition of the tribunals, Justice Dongban-Mensem said the Federal High Court donated four judges for the exercise, while the National Industrial Court gave three of their judges.

The FCT and State High Courts donated 213 judges, while the Customary Court and the Sharia Court donated 13 and 27 respectively. The Chief Magistrates Court gave 17 of its Magistrates, bringing the number to 277. But the total number of judges that will adjudicate on the post-election cases is 307.

Also speaking at the occasion, the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, last Monday, gave a countdown to the 2023 polls. He said the new electoral law contains 80 new provisions aimed at improving Nigeria’s elections.

Speaking on the problem of conflicting court decisions, the INEC boss said the “Electoral Act confers exclusive jurisdiction to hear pre-election cases on the Federal High Court with regard to candidate nomination in order to reduce forum shopping by litigants, abuse of court process and reduction in the spate of conflicting judgments by courts of coordinate jurisdiction.”

Comparing the outcomes of post-election suits, Mahmood said there was a drastic reduction in the number of cases arising from the 2019 election. He disclosed that 30 elections were upturned by the tribunals in 2019 as against over 100 in a previous election.

The admonition by Justice Ariwoola is not out of place. Since his assumption of office, he has been talking tough and warning judicial officers to display a high degree of integrity, decorum and professionalism in the course of discharging their job.

Recently, he had noted that Nigeria was currently at the crossroads and requires the services of judges who are God-fearing and guided solely by their conscience and the law.

Justice Ariwoola had while answering reporters’ questions after his swearing in, called on politicians to stop mounting pressure on the judiciary and allow it to perform its functions.

“Politicians should allow the judiciary to function. Law is not static and that’s why you have seen that the National Assembly continues to amend the laws and it is the laws that the courts apply to the facts available. We shall continue to do justice if only Nigerians will allow us to perform and function without any pressure,” he said.

The inauguration of the judges by the CJN no doubt showed that the judiciary, just like INEC, is set to contribute its quota to the country’s democratic sojourn. While INEC is doing everything possible to ensure that it conducts credible polls, stakeholders in the polity feel that the judiciary, a major stakeholder, should begin to put its house in order to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2007 where a lot of incoherent and incongruous judgments were handed down by the tribunals to deny petitioners justice.

Many analysts have argued that for the electoral process to be credible, it is not only the INEC that needs to do what is right, but that the judiciary needs to correct any wrong noticeable in the process. Though the observers have contended that the panacea for eliminating electoral disputes in Nigeria or keeping it within reasonable bounds is the conduct of free, fair and transparent elections, they nevertheless agree that the judiciary has a huge role to play in ensuring that those who come to court after the elections to lay complaints get justice.

In the past, judges of Election Petitions Tribunals had come under severe criticisms for their incoherent and incongruous judgments from election cases brought before them. Legal and political observers feel that many of the judgments delivered by the tribunals and Courts of Appeal were below expectations, thereby denying a lot of petitioners and appellants justice.

For instance, they feel that in some cases, some of the judges and justices handed vague judgments instead of consequential orders and declarations. There were also cases where some petitioners were denied justice on technical grounds rather than on merit of the case. In some of the cases, allegations of compromise were imputed.

Many have argued that one of the reasons some judges in the previous tribunals were involved in corrupt practices was because they too wanted a piece of the “National Cake”. Some of the judges, who many thought saw their inclusion in Election Petition Tribunals as an opportunity to make money, in the process handed down judgments that defied logic. For instance, Professor Ben Nwabueze (SAN), at a public function in Lagos in 2009, criticised some judges and justices on the quality of their pronouncements. Nwabueze accused them of allotting governorships and presidency at their whims and thereby diminishing the tenets of justice cum constitutional democracy.