Politics is good, very good, for law practice in our country. Politics is the biggest industry in the land. Nothing comes close to the fortunes that lawyers and crooked judges make from election cases. Naturally, political cases invite hordes of learned brothers in black robes, wigs, and dog collars to plead for justice for some and the denial of justice to others.
The courts have accorded political cases pride of place in the dispensation of both justice and injustice. They come at the top in the hierarchy of priorities. Criminal and civil cases linger because political cases linger. You can delay civil and criminal cases and deny the litigants justice. The same principle does not apply in election cases where delay amounts to toying with not just one’s man political ambition but the fate of the nation and its people.
The intimidating crowds at the presidential election tribunals tell a fair story of how truly attractive and lucrative law practice has become in the land. With such large and growing numbers of lawyers, is it possible for any injustices to go unpunished? Don’t bet on it. Lawyers intimidate one another with each side packing their side to the rafters with senior lawyers, middling lawyers and junior lawyers learning the ropes from their more settled seniors. Our litigations do not celebrate law and its hallowed place in our administrations. They are part of the show of force by which the rich crush the poor with calculated intimidation. We are an atomistic nation because we are a uniquely litigious nation. It counts for something.
I see this as a disturbing trend rather than evidence of our moving with the current civilised trends in politics and governance where disputes are settled with dog-eared law books rather than the resort to petrol, as in operation wetie. It touches on at least two fundamental practices of our democracy. Combined, they ill-serve us as a nation. It should not be difficult to appreciate the glaring consequences, one for our elections and two, for the core principles of democracy.
No one takes power other than by the means and the processes prescribed by the institutions of democracy. An electoral commission is one of such fundamental institutions of democracy. It is not an umpire who blows his whistle when he sees a foul being committed by the players. The statutory duties of the commission are far beyond the conduct of elections at election intervals. In other climes with less polluted politics, the electoral umpire is sufficiently empowered by law and tradition to stop men and women with unsavoury past and even more unsavoury present from seeking political power as leaders of men, women and of their countries. An electoral umpire made weak by law and weakened by political shenanigans is in no position to properly discharge its statutory responsibilities in accordance with the tenets of democracy – and grow democracy.
General Abdulsalami Abubakar left us with a fairly strong electoral commission in 1999. The first things the politicians noticed and disagreed with were the powers of the commission, including the power to qualify or disqualify those it felt did not deserve to be allowed to run for public offices. They attacked the commission through some asinine but calculated amendments to the electoral act. They reduced the powers of the commission and gave to the political parties the right to qualify their candidates for public offices. A glaring anomaly offensive to the democratic tradition because it empowers a man to judge himself.
This has since been stretched beyond the ambits of the law, as witness the Supreme Court judgement affirming Senate President Ahmad Lawan as APC senatorial candidate in the 2023 general elections because the party insisted that its right to field a candidate for an election could not be taken away from it, even when it is in cynical breach of the electoral act. When the courts support political rascality and impunity, it bends the arc of democracy towards totalitarianism. It gives democracy a faux face.
The core principle of democracy is the right of the people to institute a government of their choice. That right is sacred and redolent with critical individual and collective responsibilities. The people choose their political leaders at given electoral intervals at the polling booths with their sacred ballot papers. The right to vote carries with it the inherent dangers of wrong choices but so long as they are made by the people, it is safe to assume they will be willing to live with them. Political choices do not always make sense.
What is at stake in our country today is the right of the people to institute their government through the instrumentality of the ballot papers. That right faces a clear and systematic danger of being eroded with the increasing role the courts now play in pre- and post-election cases. The politicians dragged in the courts and the courts happily assumed the right to decide for the people. This is not the way of true democracy. It is the way of a hybrid that combines the elements of democracy with the elements of totalitarianism.
I once pointed out in this column that we have reached a point where we do not know any more the genuine choices of the people and those who emerged from the temple of justice clutching judicial interpretations that de-affirm the choices the people made at the polling booths. The complication arising from this is that we now believe that but for the courts, the politicians will get away with murder – and not entirely metaphorically. But with the courts, they get away with justice bent out of shape. A good number of pre- and post-elections cases decided by the courts have done enormous damage to the integrity of their lordships. The politicians have fouled the temple of justice. It is bad for our democracy. It is bad for us as a nation. Something must give.
What must give is to take away from the political parties their overwhelming influence at the expense of the electoral umpire. The framers of the constitution made allowances for the minimal intervention of the courts in pre- and post- election matters so the gates of justice can admit all those who seek refuge in the temple of justice. It was not the intendment of the law that the people’s rights should be taken away from them and given to the courts. The courts cannot replace the people as the custodians of political power. I refer you to the NPN slogan in the second republic, to wit, power to the people.