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As a young man enjoying my carefree life in Kano, there was nothing I dreaded like the anger of one big brother. That was in the mid 70s. I had made fast friends with Hadi Mustapha and as we went about doing the things young men about town are bound to do, he took care to warn us about his ‘no nonsense’ senior brother whose house we frequented.
He said the man was slow to anger but if you got him angry, you saw fire! I heeded that advice and never crossed the big man’s path for all these years of my friendship with Hadi who is now a retired Permanent Secretary and the District head of Babura in Jigawa state.
On Monday, Nov 14, 2012, Justice Dahiru Musdapher, senior brother to Hadi Mustapha and then Chief Justice of Nigeria, whose anger I dreaded and avoided for all these years exploded before me at a Supreme Court session. A visibly angry Dahiru read out a unanimous verdict on behalf of a five-member panel of the apex Court in which it upturned the decisions of the Court of Appeal which dismissed some petitions on technical ground.
“It is too early for me to start losing my head. I am begging you in the name of justice. Matters should be decided on their merits and not technicalities,” he thundered.
“I don’t know why judges should go on with the basis of pre-hearing conference alone to dismiss a petition without hearing it on its merit. Matters must be decided on their merits. Our responsibility to whoever comes before us is to do justice without technicalities. Where is justice after the tribunal itself issued the pre-hearing notice? The same tribunal had fixed hearing and after some days somebody now brought an application for the dismissal of the petition, where is the justice in that situation.
“They just want to take an easy way out to finish the matter. We will say no to it. Democracy is the number of people who vote for A or B, let justice be done.
“The appeal succeeds and it is hereby ordered that the tribunal should hear the appeals on their merits denovo”, he added.
The cases in point were those of the two standard-bearers of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in Benue and Akwa Ibom states; Steve Ugbah and John Akpanudodehe. They were challenging the decision of the Court of Appeal, which had dismissed their petitions on the grounds that they were filed ex parte without leave of court.
The two appellants hailed the judgment by the Chief Justice who had just resumed office believing that Dahiru was a ‘Daniel come to judgment’. They all went back to the tribunals that denied them justice. After a series of false starts, contrived by the tribunals they were again faced with the same technicalities that the Chief Justice had in justifiable anger condemned. This time they were told that the mandatory 180 days for hearing of cases at the Tribunal had expired.
Since it was the Supreme Court, presided over by the Chief Justice which ruled that all cases should be heard “on merit and not technicalities”, Prof Steve Ugba, the ACN gubernatorial candidate went back to the Supreme Court, looking for justice.
Amazingly, the same Supreme Court which ruled on Monday, 14 Nov, 2012 that cases must be heard on merit and not on technical grounds sat on another Monday, this time, 12th May of 2014, and threw out Steve Ugba’s appeal on technical grounds!
The fact remains that the substance of the case – a cocktail of criminal acts such as vote stealing, murder, armed robbery, certificate forgery – against the PDP and INEC before the tribunal has not been heard. And by the ruling of the Supreme Court will never be heard!
This is a very sad commentary on the role of the judiciary in our democratic system.
In November 1999, I had an exclusive interview with Justice Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, the then Chief Justice of Nigeria. In the interview which was published in the November edition of Crystal international Magazine, the learned Chief Justice spoke excitedly and with high hopes about the incoming democratic dispensation. Of the role of the judiciary in ensuring justice to all, he told me that;
“When you look at Section 6 of the Constitution, the purpose of the judiciary is to settle disputes between persons, between government authorities and any person in Nigeria. So this has always been the function of the judiciary. If you are in dispute, the function of the judiciary is to settle the dispute. Also in the case of the violation of any right of an individual, the judiciary will interpret the Constitution.
“During the military, they introduced ouster clauses in respect of certain matters like armed robbery, drug matters, over which the judiciary had jurisdiction but the military promulgated decrees setting up tribunals and ousting the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court. So I will say the provisions of the Constitution are enough to guarantee the performance of the role of the judiciary in a democratic dispensation”.
Those were the views of the longest serving Chief Justice Nigeria ever had (1995-2006) and who served both the military and civilian governments without stain. Regrettably, less than 15 years after the respected jurist rejoiced in that conversation with me that the military had gone with their ouster clauses and the judiciary was now free to judge all cases without let, the Supreme Court has by its latest misadventure chained itself with a creative ouster clause of its own invention.
What else can one say of a Supreme Court that says a citizen’s complaint cannot be heard when Section 6 of the Constitution grants the judiciary the power to hear all cases brought before it? What is all this nonsense about 180 days? Is the law that created the 180 days time bar superior to the Constitution of the Federal Republic?
The APC in Benue while reacting to the verdict of the Supreme Court took solace in philosophy, saying “we are convinced of the fact that after the judgment by the Supreme Court, there shall be three other judgments: judgment by the people, judgment by posterity and judgment by God.”
I have a more pessimistic view of this our judicial system that shuts its doors on aggrieved citizens. Such citizens will have no patience with the Supreme Court judgment, no patience with judgment by the people, no patience for judgment by posterity and no patience for judgment by God. They will fall back on self help.
Frustration gives birth to aggression.
We have developed a judicial system that will soon breed many more Boko Harams. Sadly, with Boko Harams around, even justices of the Supreme Court throw their highly cherished dignity to the ground and take to their heels for dear life. This is what is happening to us now. The English people call it terrorism. In Tiv language, we call it toomwanism.