By Dons Eze, PhD
Oftentimes, we hear that the court, or the judiciary, is the last hope of the common man. But in real life, we see that the court, or the judiciary in Nigeria, belongs to the privileged, to those in authority, those who have the power to manipulate the courts, and to those who have the means, and who can afford the high cost of Nigerian judicial process.
As a common man, you cannot just come out on your own and begin to tell the court your story. This is prohibited. You must hire somebody who does not wear your shoe and who does not know how it pinches, to tell your story. They call him a lawyer. He understands and speaks the language of the court. In our clime, he is not easy to come by.
When you have manage to raise the necessary fund to hire the lawyer, he will be telling your story the way he likes, using many jargons and technical terms that may be strange or confusing to you, such as ad idem, ad infinitum, appurtenances, condition precedent, ultra virus, probono, subpoena, sine die, etc. You will just be standing in the dock like a statue, moping.
Like the Sophists of old, the lawyer with his sugar-coated mouth, will conspire with the judge to put off your case for as many times as they may wish. Each time the case will come up for hearing in the court, you will be forced to cough out huge sums of money as the lawyer’s transportation fee.
Even before the lawyer agrees to step his feet in the court on each of these many adjournments, you would have parted with huge sums of money for “briefs”, “legal fee”, “filing fee”, “swearing of affidavit fee”, photocopying of hundreds of pages of documents fee, etc.
The case may linger for two, three, four, or even ten years, and you are the one to bear the cost, with the lawyer urging you to keep going with the case, giving you the hope and the impression that victory is yours, but that it remains one or two things to be tidied up for the Judge to decide the case in your favour. You will keep on spending and spending, till when God knows.
If at long last, the case does not go in your favour, the lawyer will call it “travesity of justice”, and will assure you of victory once he goes on appeal. You will give your consent, and it is like begining everything all over again. You will continue to part with your money from the Appeal Court, till it gets to either the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, or your your pocket gets empty. It then becomes clear to you that it is “justice delayed, justice denied”. Such is the fate of the common man and the Nigerian judicial system.
Initially, they used to tell us that the Supreme Court of Nigeria is made up of men and women of honour and integrity, unbiased, incorruptible, without reproach, spotless and without wrinkle, whose judicial pronouncements were like if God Himself had spoken, truth and nothing but the truth.
But now, a retired Justice of the Supreme Court, Olabode Rhodes-Vivour, has told us to no longer see it that way. Justice Rhodes-Vivour who recently retired from the Supreme Court, maintained that many previous decisions of the apex court should be laid to rest, and never followed.
According to him, “on several occasions, it was held that the court should absolutely be bound by the doctrine of precedent or stare decisis”, which in effect, means “stand by your decisions and the decisions of your predecessors, however wrong they are and whatever injustices they inflict”.
He saidd that abiding by such principle would mean that the Supreme Court would continue to follow some of its previous judgements that no longer make sense. “There are some precedents that are clearly out of date, and should no longer be followed. I am of the view that precedents that no longer make sense anymore or are outdated should be laid to rest and never followed”, he stated.
Justice Rhodes-Vivour has not told us anything new. He has told us what we already know, that is to say, that the Nigerian judiciary no longer passes landmark, compact and water-tight judgements. Gone were the days when one looks forward to an unbiased judgement from the courts in Nigeria, judgements that make meaning, and not repugnant to common sense.
It is either that those in power use their position to pervert justice, to intimidate the courts into awarding cases in their favour, or that those who have the means use their wealth to procure judgements that will be favourable to them. In both cases, the common man is the loser.
In 1984, there was one Justice Gregory Okoro-Idogu who headed the Port Harcourt zone of the Exchange Control (Anti-Sabotage) Tribunal set up by the Buhari military government to try those who traffic in both local and foreign currencies. Before Justice Okoro-Idogu, was Fela Anikulapo Kuti, music icon and social critic. He was charged with trying to export 1,600 British Pound Sterling without lawful permit.
Fela was not in the good books of the authorities. It was therefore an excellent opportunity to get at him. He tried to explain himself before the tribunal, that he was innocent of the charges brought against him, but nobody listened to him. Accordingly, he was found guilty of illegal possession of the money and sentenced to five years imprisonment. The authorities were happy, so to say, and they promoted Okoro-Idogu to Federal High Court Judge.
Later, when another administration came, Justice Okoro-Idogu became restless. His conscience began to prick him. He was worried. He decided to do a mea culpa, to ask for mercy and forgiveness. He made his way to Maidugiri, where Fela was serving his prison term.
There, he told Fela that he was sorry for what he did, that he was wrongly imprisoned, that it was not his intention to imprison him, that he knew that he did not commit the offence, but that it was the authorities that forced him to do what he did. Based on that confessional statement, Fela was set free from prison, and Justice Okoro-Idogu retired.
Today, they are many judges in Nigeria who are worse than Justice Okoro-Idogu, but they will not do any mea culpa, like he did. Somebody, sometime ago, had suggested that we stop appending the title “Justice” before the name of these men and women who sit on the bench, since many of them had desecrated the title.
Our worry is why did it take Justice Rhodes-Vivour to retire from the Supreme Court before he realized that we should no longer use the decisions of our apex court as reference points? If he was a man of conscience, and he was interested in reforming the Nigerian judicial system, he should have distanced himself from such judgements that impugned the integrity of Nigerian judiciary. Better to have one’s honour and integrity intact, than to soil it for pecuniary interests, or for whatever reason. But here in Nigeria, nobody resigns from office, no matter how bad the situation is.
Nevertheless, we still look forward to a time when our judiciary will produce judges who will be of impeccable character, who will be bold and fearless, and whose judgements will be untainted, unassailable, sound, and be on the marble like the celebrated Lord Denning.