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CJN Moves To Save Judiciary, Summons Justices Over Conflicting Court Orders

Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed
  • Says NJC has always warned judicial officers to be circumspect in granting Exparte
  • NBA threatens to sanction erring senior members
  • SANs welcome Muhammad’s intervention

The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Tanko Ibrahim Muhammad immediately swung into action by summoning six Chief Judges of State High Court in the country, in a bid to halt the apparent decay in the judiciary, often occasioned by indiscriminate granting of court orders and injunctions by some pliable judges who have by their dishonourable conduct brought the Bench to disrepute.

Some of the states Chief Justices invited before the NJC include that of Rivers, Anambra, Jigawa, Kebbi, Imo and Cross River.

A copy of the letter of invitation seen by Flavision indicated that the affected Chief Judges are to appear before the Chief Justice of Nigeria, as a prelude to the larger one by the NJC to explain what warranted issuance of conflicting orders by courts of coordinate jurisdiction.

While the High Courts of Imo, Jigawa and Anambra need to explain their roles in the Anambra governorship election, the High Courts of Rivers, Kebbi and Cross River on the other hand are involved in the case of the PDP Chairman, Prince Uche Secondus.

Flavision gathered that the CJN complained bitterly on the huge embarrassment caused the Nigerian judiciary by the actions of those who issued the conflicting orders upon ex-parte applications by some politicians.

The summons dated August 30, 2021, read in part:

My attention has been drawn to media reports to the effect that some Courts of coordinate jurisdiction were granting conflicting Exparte Orders on the same subject matter.

It has become expedient for me to invite you for a detailed briefing on the development.

This is even more compelling having regard to earlier NJC Warning to judicial officers on the need to be circumspect in granting Exparte applications.

Similarly, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), which shared same position as the CJN, has also condemned the now rife development, saying it would be willing to sanction any member found wanting.

The menace of indiscriminate issuance of injunctions and orders, which it reckoned if not checked could derail the country’s hard-earned democracy as the 2023 general election began to gather momentum.

In the last two months, several orders and counter orders had been issued against the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), particularly, as it related to the November 6 governorship election in Anambra State.

On one occasion, the court had ordered the electoral umpire to recognise a particular aspirant as the candidate of a political party and within a short while, another order of court equal jurisdiction had directed INEC to drop that person and, in his stead, fill in another person.

As at today, it’s hard to say between a former Central Bank Governor, Chukwuma Soludo and Chukwuma Umeoji, who would finally be on the ballot for the All Progressives Grand Alliance or who would finally be governor assuming APGA won the election as both parties will certainly fight to the finish, up to the Supreme Court.

However, worried by the development, the CJN summoned the heads of those courts involved in what is becoming a real threat to Nigeria’s democracy.

Unlike other times that the National Judicial Council (NJC) would wait for a petition from the public before investigating and disciplining any erring judge, the CJN has on his own taken the decision to look into the issue and might wield the big stick on the erring justices.

Although this is not the first time the intervention of the courts have threatened the nation’s democracy, this instance has generated real worries about the future of the country’s democracy.

Justice Bassey Ikpeme of the Abuja Division of the Federal High Court was the first to attempt to truncate Nigeria’s democracy, when on June 10, 1993, he issued a restraining order on the then electoral umpire from going ahead with the scheduled June 12, 1993 presidential election.

The judge had granted the order despite clear provisions of Decree number 13, which stated that no court of law could interfere with conduct of the election.

The restraining order was sequel to an exparte application by a shadow organisation, the Association of Better Nigeria (ABN), led by a disqualified presidential aspirant in the person of Arthur Nzeribe, now late.

The National Election Commission (NEC) had though defied the order and went ahead to conduct the presidential election as scheduled on June 12, 1993, the commission was however restrained from going ahead to release the results of the election.

But, while the candidate of the defunct Social Democratic Party (SDP), Chief Moshood Abiola, was already on the cusp of victory after leading in 15 states where election results were announced, Justice Saleh had in a ruling on an ex-parte application on June 15, 1993 stopped NEC from further announcement of the election results.

And due to the actions of the court, Abiola till his death never became president as the former Military President, General Ibrahim Babangida, annulled the election, adjudged the freest and fairest at the time in Africa.

In this fourth democracy, the intervention of the court also made somebody, Rotimi Amaechi, who did not contest an election in 2007 to be governor of Rivers State.

The court had hinged its decision on the grounds that it was a political party that contested election and not an individual. Although the court has found a way of correcting itself after it later held in another case that for a candidate to be declared winner, he must participate in all the processes of an election.

Thirty years after the first attempt, some judges are still in the habit of doing the biddings of money bags against the interest of the country, legal profession and even the oath of office they swore to.

According to some public analysts, the development has since put the nation’s judiciary in a big mess.

Before the suspension and return to office orders on the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, by three High Courts in Rivers, Kebbi and Cross River States, former National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Comrade Adams Oshiomhole, was also last year before his sack by the APC National Working Committee (NWC) restrained and later ordered back to office by High Courts in FCT, Abuja, Benin and Kano. Court order are now so cheap that they now worth less than the paper they are written on.

Analysts, however, stressed that the judges are not alone in this trade, because according to them, some very senior lawyers share in the blame, by the way and manner they file frivolous applications.

It is the willingness of the judges to entertain these applications and issue consequential orders that has baffled many.

These senior lawyers allegedly go from court to court shopping for interim injunctions. Only last year, the apex court, while delivering ruling in an application for the court to review and vacate its own judgment, slammed a whopping N30 million each on two very senior lawyers.

Justice Amina Augie, who had read the ruling of the Supreme Court with tears in her eyes lamented that, “very senior” lawyers were responsible for filing the suit.

Regrettably however, nothing till date has been done to deter such apart from small fines that make no dent in the pockets of such lawyers.

This development is fast making people to lose faith in the judicial system and if not checked, lawyers and judges might put the country in bigger problem, because according to the analysts, the situation in Nigeria,

is unbelievably very bad. Black market injunctions are dished out on a daily basis to the highest bidder. The courts no longer dispense justice. They merely dish out orders to whoever can afford them.

Sharing the same position as the CJN, the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) also yesterday waded into the development, saying it would punish any member found wanting.

The NBA said it

has observed with dismay the unfortunate and recurring trend of contradictory court decisions and orders, especially, among courts of coordinate jurisdiction, typically arising from exparte applications and almost always in political matters.

In a statement by its President, Mr. Olumide Akpata, the NBA chided especially, senior lawyers for the malaise, saying,

Astonishingly, that commitment (to the Rules of Professional Conduct for Legal Practitioners 2007) is now being threatened by the conduct of some of our own members, the majority of whom are senior members of the Bar, who continue to yield themselves to be used as willing tools by politicians to wantonly abuse the judicial process.

Indicating that it might sanction erring members going forward, the NBA said,

By the issuance of this statement, the NBA confirms unequivocally that it will not stand by and watch a ridiculing of the profession and the justice administration system by a handful of its members and will be considering its deterrence options in this regard.

While not sparing the judiciary in the debacle, the NBA said,

The Bench, respectfully, is also not blameless. We certainly concur with the Honourable Justice Chioma Nwosu-Iheme of the Court of Appeal in her condemnation of the indulgence by some judicial officers of politicians, who go round the country shopping for judgments, and who thereby bring the Judiciary to public ridicule.

Akpata said the NBA would

urgently seek audience with the Honourable Chief Justice of Nigeria to address this issue holistically,

adding that he would

enlist the support of the Chairman of the NBA Judiciary Committee, Dr. Babatunde Ajibade, SAN as well as the Chairpersons of the NBA Section of Legal Practice (NBA-SLP) and NBA Section on Public Interest and Development Law (NBA-SPIDEL), Mr. Oluwaseun Abimbola, SAN and Dr. Monday Ubani for this proposed engagement.

Two Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN), Dayo Akinlaja and Abdul Mohammed, while reacting to the CJN moves, welcomed the invitation extended to the chief judges by Muhammad

Akinlaja said the decision by the CJN to stop judges wading into political issues was ‘a pleasant and heartwarming development.’

According to him, the spate of conflicting orders from the courts of late has been extremely troubling and disquieting.

He said:

For any discerning mind, the idea of giving conflicting orders of injunction does not bode well at all for our justice sector. It is axiomatic that justice is rooted in confidence. A situation, where conflicting orders of injunction is the order of the day, doubtless, fundamentally erodes the confidence the public might otherwise have in the judiciary.

He stated that as the chairman of NJC, it was not out of place for the CJN to issue the letters of invitation to the various heads of the courts.

It is my personal wish and desire that all that is needful is done to nip in the bud the new wave of abuse of ex parte injunctions. Our nation is at crossroads at the moment on all fronts. The judiciary is highly critical if we must make a headway out of the disturbing state of affairs in the country. In light of this, all hands must be on deck to prevent the judiciary from losing the trust and confidence of the public.

To me, the CJN deserves the felicitations of us all for rising, as it were, to the occasion. It is a case of a stitch in time saves nine,

he said.

Also reacting, a former President of Lagos State Court of Arbitration, Mr. Yemi Candide-Johnson (SAN) said the recent wave of conflicting court judgement showed the recklessness of the judiciary.

Speaking on Arise News Channel, Candide-Johnson said the federal system of governance which the country operates is founded on separation of powers and rule of law.

He added that the rule of law is the most important aspect of any constitutional and legal arrangement and therefore identifies how important the judiciary is.

Candide-Johnson was of the opinion that the Judiciary could only maintain its status as the guarantor of rights of individuals and of rights of government if the judiciary is competent, independent and impartial.

He stated:

And decisions like these…which indicates the lack of consistency and very often the recklessness of consequences of decisions to be taken. It seems to me that they have so severely damaged the reputation and credibility of the judiciary that it has become ineffective for the purpose of which it was been established – which is to maintain the stability of our government, our democracy and the safety and conduct of our people.

If people can’t have confidence in the independence and impartiality, the competence being assumed of judges, then the entire system will come into a grounding halt and there would be disorder.

On the summon of the judges, Candide-Johnson noted that the CJN does not have the power to sanction the judges, saying the Chief Judge of respective states should be directly held responsible.

Candide-Johnson stressed that he has no doubt that one of the judges was guilty of judicial misconduct.

He added:

Let me start by correctly characterizing what appears to have gone wrong with these decisions. There is no doubt in my mind that one or more of those judges is guilty of judicial misconduct. And if in a series of high profile cases, inconsistent decisions were given by Judges across States and judges of coordinate jurisdiction, I myself will consider that there was warrant for a corruption enquiry.

That’s being said, the CJN, although he has no direct supervisory authority over individual judges, he has the responsibility as the leader of Nigerian Judiciary…in that regard, he has the very least the powers, not coercive power, but we must recognised the fact that judicial discipline is going to come before a committee that he chairs.

Now, for a judge in a state to give a decision which may well prove to be unfounded and potentially corrupt, the Chief Judge of the state is the person to be held directly responsible. Because the assignment of cases in the state, is a part that belongs to the Chief Judge and if the Chief Judge cannot guarantee that the judges he assigns the cases to or he allows to have cases assigned to them and to conduct themselves in a way that is responsible, that is lawful and that is credible. One needs to wonder about the confidence and the capacity of the Chief judge.

Candide-Johnson noted that there is a mechanism for disciplining judges through the National Judicial Council (NJC) but added that it has a cumbersome procedure.

He explained that the NJC was primarily concerned with the integrity and the dignity of judges rather than the effectiveness of their functions to the people and accountability to the people who they serve

Candide-Johnson said if the people have no confidence in the judges, they have already failed in their function, stressing that the system of accountability needs to be improved to a great degree

Mohammed, on his part, said the invitation was a right step in the right direction, wondering why the judges would issue the orders they granted without hearing the other parties.

He said:

The Supreme Court in the case of Onuoha v Okafor (1983) 2 SCNLR has since settled the question of jurisdiction of court to determine issues of membership of political parties.

The Supreme Court in the recent case of of PEOPLES DEMOCRATIC PARTY v. SENATOR ALI MODU SHERRIF & ORS (2017) LPELR-42736(SC) reiterated the point that issues of leadership of political parties are political questions, which the courts do not exercise jurisdiction over.

Though facts have their peculiarities, trials courts must be weary of politicians, who use the courts to play political theatrics.

Also, a legal commentator stated,

Nigerian judge could restrain God Almighty Himself from the very thing that gave us life: creation. You read lawyers asking the court to restraint the president from traveling or restrain the National Assembly from making laws or mandate the National Assembly to support Biafra. The jurisprudence is all over the place. You can literally choose what results you want and find the line of case to get whatever.

While likening Nigerian law to Nigeria, he said,

No sensible foreign company including those operating in Nigeria today ever agrees to use Nigerian law as applicable law in their contracts with Nigerian entities or Nigeria courts as forum convenience. Even local companies doing business in Nigeria are resorting to foreign laws and foreign jurisdictions for dispute resolution.

Our legal jurisprudence suffers and local lawyers continue to suffer in terms of capacity development. Today, foreign law firms are beginning to encroach into practices that Nigerian law firms should ordinarily be engaged in.

The big foreign law firms like Dentons, White and Case, Skadden Apps, Ashurst, Norton Rose etc are setting up offices in Nigeria and using their vast experience garnered from practice in multiple jurisdictions to scoop out most of the juicy briefs in telecoms, oil and gas, financing, mergers and acquisitions, trademarks etc. I wonder how many of the known local law firms in Nigeria will still be in existence in the next 15 to 20 years.

He concluded that Lawyers who aid in the destruction of the nation’s judicial system would one day wake up to realise that the courts have become like motor parks, where rickety injunctions could be obtained by agberos.

Although the CJN has taken a very commendable step, Nigerians would be waiting to see what will come out of it, because

disciplinary process is slow and at times difficult to activate. In the end, no one gets punished,

another lawyer said.
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