The Supreme Court of Nigeria has a choice to make. In doing this, there may be some hangups. There may be some stalking here and there. But the choice remains that of living up to its billing as the temple of justice or running foul of the error once described by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa as short-sighted arrogance. To settle for the latter will be a blight. The disrepute inherent in it can drown an institution. It can become a stigma which persons and institutions worth their name can ill afford. And since the Supreme Court of Nigeria has a reputation behind it, we do not expect that it will, knowingly, sink into the abyss of disrepute.
We know how the Supreme Court got caught up in this miasma. It had, on 14th January, 2020, chosen to swim in troubled waters. It was the day it stripped Emeka Ihedioha of his governorship and installed Hope Uzodinma in his place. At the end of the tensed proceedings, the distraught audience in the court room chuckled the usual refrain: “as the court pleases.” But no one, in truth, was pleased. There was palpable evidence that neither the court nor the court room audience was pleased. Even those on the side of the victor were not quite ecstatic.
They felt somewhat guilty, somewhat criminal. Nobody could understand the action of the Justices. It was bizarre in every material particular. It subverted all known norms of justice. The bewildered public could not and has not been able to come to terms with the violent rape of justice. Imo, the prime target of the violation, is still on its knees. It is reeling in pains. The people of the state are moaning and groaning. They now wear the garb of doomed voyagers. They do not seem to know where the gale of confusion will land them.
The concerned world has been part of the outcry. The brazenness of the Supreme Court has left them wondering. When did Nigeria become such a joke? Why has the country chosen to mortgage its tomorrow for the filthy lucre of today? The disturbing questions have been pouring in torrents. The errors that gave birth to the judgment cannot be ignored. People cannot get the hang of it. Its bizarre content has remained too choking to deserve being rehearsed. It sits in discomfort today as a blot on the fair face of democracy. It is oddity writ large.
But if this absurd display was enacted by street urchins, we would dismiss the story as belonging to the wonderland of an Alice. But what rankles here is that the story is flowing from the highest of places. The Supreme Court, the most revered of all the courts in the land, is the author of this violent assault on everything that we associate with justice. It has crashed our hold on substance and left us in the shadowy world of disbelief. Why are we so accursed? Why has our best given us our worst? Public intellectuals have been working hard to put the strange scenario in a straitjacket, but the issue remains hydra-headed.
But a window of opportunity is beckoning, ready to be explored. That, perhaps, could bail us out of the present state of despondency. The Supreme Court of old where the likes of Justice Oputa held sway provided the leeway. Way back in 1986, the Supreme Court of Nigeria found itself in a situation where it had to review its earlier judgment in which justice was not served. Justice Oputa came to the rescue then when he counseled thus:
“Justices of this Court are human beings capable of erring. It will certainly be short-sighted arrogance not to accept this obvious truth. It is also true that this Court can do inestimable good through its wise decisions. Similarly, the Court can do incalculable harm through its mistakes. When therefore it appears to learned Counsel that any decision of this Court has been given per incuriam, such Counsel should have the boldness and courage to ask that such decision should be overruled. This Court has the power to overrule itself (and has done so in the past) for it gladly accepts that it is far better to admit an error than to preserve an error.”
This is where we are now. The unjust judgment which the Supreme Court released on 14th January has unsettled the watching world. Significantly, Ihedioha, the man who was hit below the belt by the judgment, has the courage of his convictions. He has returned to the Supreme Court in search of justice. He is seeking a review of the obnoxious judgment. And the Court has, graciously, admitted his application for a review.
At this stage, we should take a closer look at Oputa’s counsel. In the instant case, the Supreme Court did an incalculable harm to justice when it entered an unjustified and unjustifiable judgment against Ihedioha even in the face of glaring errors and contradictions on the part of the court. With the judgement, even children in Elementary school are asking questions. Nobody understands how APC could still have a candidate if someone had been disqualified from the election by the same Supreme Court on the ground that he held the ticket of two political parties, including that of APC. Nobody has been able to understand how the number of actual voters can exceed the number of those accredited to vote in an election. There are so many grey areas in the judgment which we do not need to rehash here. They are already too well known by all concerned that they do not require further elaboration. Suffice it to say that the Supreme Court erred. And it knows that. The task before it therefore is strive to remedy its error. Will it preserve the error and live with an infamy that will forever destroy the integrity of the judiciary in Nigeria or correct it? I believe that the Justices of our Supreme Court will make a wise choice.
In all of this, our learned Justices should also consider the integrity of President Buhari. After his election victory at the Supreme Court, the man has promised Nigerians that he will bequeath to them a credible electoral process before he leaves office. Even though many took the president’s declaration with a pinch of salt, there is the need to give him benefit of doubt. This being the case, we expect the Supreme Court to assist the president in this national assignment. The court should not be an agent of electoral manipulation. What has taken place in Imo state is an embarrassment. The Supreme Court has an opportunity to save itself, the president and the country from this monumental embarrassment.
Dr. Obi writes from Owerri