THE return of President Muhammadu Buhari to Nigeria and the fact that he is alive, contrary to fatalistic speculation that hung in the air while he was away in the United Kingdom, gave relief to his party men and supporters all over the country, for diverse reasons. In Edo State, rumour has it to the effect that the uncomfortable revelations at the ongoing Edo Governorship Election Petition Tribunal whereby it has become clear that INEC advertently or inadvertently conducted the 2016 Edo State Governorship Election with gross violation of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), made the APC feel helpless in the absence of the President whom the party believe would not mind intervening to save the only state under their control in the South South geo political zone.
APC members at the grassroots boast all over town that the worst that can happen is for the Tribunal to reach a verdict nullifying the election and ordering a rerun. They hinge their confidence in the fact that the APC is in control and would not watch to see Edo slip out of their hands. Reminded that in 2008 when APC, then AC, came to power in Edo through the decision of the court, the common reply is that the then ruling PDP did not know the use of power.
This sentiment by the APC in Edo, in spite of the reported sanitizing reforms going on in the judiciary, which is seen to be championed by President Buhari, throws up some questions begging for answers.
One cannot but wonder if the laws and government policy under the APC are of different applications to the ruling party and others, particularly the Opposition party, as evident in the APC’s prosecution of the war against corruption. Could it mean that President Buhari’s party men see his anti-corruption fight only as a political strategy to perpetually put the opposition in check? Can the president really condescend to sacrifice honour for the exigency of entrenching the tentacles of his political party? Can he even be bold and perhaps shameless to attempt influencing the course of justice, whether directly or by proxy despite his war against judges who are alleged of having sold justice? And then, in the midst of all the opprobrium and the ridicule to which the judiciary has lately been subjected, could this Tribunal be influenced to throw conscience overboard and do what is not proper? The last question becomes more pertinent given the unfavourable report about the corrupt tendencies of Nigerian judges since the advent of the Fourth Republic, especially as it concerns the handling of political cases, with the plethora of election petitions providing the ground for an unfortunate poli-judicial bazaar. Until the present attempt to question the suspect conduct and wealth of some judges, Nigerians had practically lost faith in the credibility of the Nigerian judiciary, particularly with respect of its honesty in deciding political cases on the merit of their judicial content. Of a truth, judges had become frivolous in their interpretation of the law and the strict adherence to the best practices of jurisprudence. Obviously compromised judges had for instance perfected the art of deciding matters on the basis of negligible technicalities rather than the dictates of ethic standard. It never seemed to matter to these judges that they stood in the gap to correct the errors of grievous omission or commission. What mattered to them was who had the muscle or the money to purchase their favours.
With due respect to the Nigerian Bench, one cannot but admit that in the midst of the unfortunate murk, there have always been judges of unimpeachable reputation, who have always discharged their sacred responsibility within the scope of their unaffected understanding of the law and the dictates of their conscience. However, the rot has been so pervasive that there is hardly a Nigerian judge that can be trusted not to be moved by pecuniary or the awe of the executive to push “justice” in a predetermined direction. This perhaps is the reason, despite the much reported reformation going on in the judiciary, many Edo people, nay Nigerians, cannot trust the Election Petition Tribunal until judgment is delivered and it passes the test of best judicial practices and interpretation.
However, the recent appointment of a new Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Justice Walter Onnoghen, seems to have given Nigerians optimism about the proper direction of the reform of Nigerian judiciary, instigated by assault from the federal government. The New Chief Justice has promised that under his watch, the judiciary will be courageous enough to keep the executive within its limits and be honest to do justice to all men. In his famous reaction at the floor of the Senate, Walter Onnoghen said: “ you do not need to know a judge to get justice”. That is an encouraging statement coming from the new sheriff in town. It is not a new promise though, it is a new man making it. How he actually supervises the entire judiciary to ensure that justice is seen to be done and is done without fear or favour will soon be put to the test. This will be seen from how he reacts to judgments and judicial pronouncements with obvious biases and the misinterpretation and misapplication of statutes.
It is expected that Justice Walter Onnoghen takes interest in the ongoing Election Petition Tribunal in Edo which apparently is the first high profile and delicate election litigation under his watch. The judgment of the petition, expectedly, will go to the Supreme Court for final evaluation.
The call on the Chief Justice is not intended to put the Tribunal under duress. It is also not an attempt to call to question, the integrity of the honourable members of the Edo Governorship Election Petition Tribunal. So far, the Tribunal cannot be accused of having betrayed any bias. Its integrity, however will not be determined by the manner in which it guided the proceedings at the Tribunal but by the content of the judgment it delivers at the end of the day.
The decision of the honourable Tribunal will definitely not be assessed by whether it favours the petitioners or the respondents but by how it evaluates the evidences before it and how it brings the Electoral Act to bear on its decision. However, those who are die hard political capitalists and power mongers will not leave us but to think that every Tribunal has its price. The honest reaction in the instant case is best put forward thus: Can this Honourable Tribunal be compromised?
Mr. David Usifoh, a political analyst, wrote from Benin City, Edo State.