By Wandoo Sombo
Arguably, never in the history of Nigeria has the phrase “all eyes on the judiciary’’ come alive more than in the year 2023.
This cannot be far from the fact that the judiciary plays a pivotal role in the democracy of the country, being the final arbiter in disputed election outcomes.
The judiciary is one of the arms of the three arms of a constitutional democracy that are required be independent while working in harmony with one another.
It is expected to intersect with the executive and legislature yet insulate itself from their interference by drawing a line between interpreting the law, setting the precedence by judicial pronouncement yet not making the laws.
The Presidential Election Appeal was no doubt one of the major events that saw the entire country turn its “eyes on the judiciary’’.
After weeks of legal arguments and a whole day of delivering judgment by the Justice Haruna Tsammani led five-member panel of the Presidential Election Petition Court, (PEPC), attention shifted to the Supreme Court.
The PEPC had dismissed both petitions of the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP) and its Presidential Candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar as well as that of the Labour Party and Mr Peter Obi for lacking in merit.
The court affirmed the election of President Bola Tinubu as the legitimate President of Nigeria.
Disappointed by the PEPC’s verdict, the petitioners quickly approached the apex court hoping to get victory there.
“There is no merit in this appeal, and it is hereby dismissed,” said Supreme Court judge John Okoro ending months of legal battles over the presidential election race that began on March 8 at the Court of Appeal.
The Supreme Court upheld the election of President Bola Tinubu of All Progressives Congress (APC), ending months of legal battles over the presidential race.
The seven-member panel of the court ruled against the opposition’s challenges of fraud and electoral law breaches during the election.
The two opposition candidates filed legal challenges to the result, arguing that Nigeria’s election commission had failed to digitally transmit results from polling stations as promised.
The election commission acknowledged “glitches” in the voting system, but denied that the election’s integrity had been compromised.
Besides the presidential appeal, there were several appeals from the governorship and national assembly elections as well.
While some governors and lawmakers had their victories affirmed, others were not so lucky such as Gov. Caleb Mutfwang of Plateau who was sacked by the Court of Appeal.
Mutfwang’s fate now hangs in the balance as he awaits the final judgment from the Supreme Court.
The former Senate President, Sen. Ahmed Lawan, also trended in judicial news over his emergence as the APC senatorial candidate for Yobe North.
There were some controversies over the Yobe North senatorial APC candidacy which led to the Independent National Electoral Commission not listing any candidate for the district.
Aggrieved, one of the aspirants, Bashir Machina instituted a suit asking the court to declare him as the authentic senatorial candidate of the party.
The Supreme Court brought the matter to rest when it delivered judgment on Feb.6 affirming Lawan, who was a presidential aspirant as the APC candidate for the zone.
Similarly, Senate President, Sen. Godswill Akpabio, also made the headlines in the judiciary over the Akwa Ibom North-West senatorial seat.
Akpabio was contending the seat with Mr Udom Ekpoudom, a retired Deputy Inspector-General of Police.
The battle ended on Jan. 20 when the apex court put the final nail on it by declaring Akpabio as the validly nominated candidate of the APC for the senatorial seat.
Away from the elections, was also the alleged treason case filed by the Federal Government against Nnamdi Kanu.
The Supreme Court upheld the treasonable charge filed against Kanu, the leader of the proscribed Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) group.
The Federal Government prayed the court to set aside an earlier judgment by the Court of Appeal.
The appellate court had quashed the treasonable felony charge against Kanu and ordered his release because he was unlawfully brought back to the country after he jumped bail.
Kanu wanted the Supreme Court to allow the Court of Appeal’s judgment and uphold his discharge, however, the apex court upturned the judgment of the appellate court and asked Kanu to go and face his trial.
The federal government through the office of then Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami was contending that Kanu was only acquitted but not discharged of the allegations of terrorism and treasonable felony brought against him.
The prosecution further contended that Kanu had earlier demonstrated to be a flight risk when he jumped bail granted in 2017, adding that it would be in the interest of the South East and Nigeria to hold him pending the decision of the apex court.
Another major headline in the judiciary in 2023 was the case of the change of old N200 N500 and N1000 notes.
This lingered on for a while until the Supreme Court on Nov. 29 ordered that the old naira notes should continue to co-exist with the new notes until further notice.
The judgement calmed the nerves of Nigerians who were scared that there would be a repeat of naira redesign banknotes scarcity of 2022 because the court had previously ruled that the old notes should remain legal tenders under Dec. 31.
The court explained that the Dec. 31 deadline was to give the federal government the time to put in place a process for the smooth transition to the new notes.
The CBN began currency redesign in October 2022 and this caused untold hardship on Nigerians across the country.
To cushion the effects, many state governments sued the Federal Government urging the apex court to reverse the monetary policy.
Another event that shaped the judiciary in 2023 was the trial of the former CBN Governor, Mr Godwin Emefiele.
The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, (EFCC) charged Emefiele to court on a six-count amended charge bordering on procurement fraud and corruption to the tune of over N1 billion.
He was admitted to bail in the sum of N300 million and two sureties with properties in Maitama district of Abuja but remanded at the Kuje Correctional Centre pending when he would meet his bail conditions.
The 62 year-old Emefiele was ordered to deposit his international passport with court registry and remain in Abuja for the duration of the trial.
Meanwhile the case has been adjourned until Jan. 18 and 19 for continuation of trial.
There was also a once in a life time event that formed part of activities that shaped the judiciary this 2023.
This was the 50th anniversary (Golden Jubilee) of the establishment of the Federal High Court, formerly called the Federal Revenue Court.
The Federal Revenue Court of Nigeria was established in 1973 by Decree No 13 of 1973 and was later renamed the Federal High Court.
The court which started with five judges and one courtroom has grown over the last 50 years to now have 95 judges and 94 courtrooms spread across the 38 divisions of the court.
There is one division in every state with Lagos State and Delta having two divisions each.
The court also held a special court session to usher in its 2023/2024 legal year.
The Chief Judge of the court, Justice John Tsoho announced that the court was carrying over 144, 910 cases which were pending from the previous legal year to the new legal year.
“This comprise of 42, 784 civil cases, 36, 061 criminal cases, 41,447 motions and 24, 618 fundamental rights enforcement appliations,’’ the chief judge said.
In spite of the seeming growth of the judiciary, especially the FHC which the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, has described as the best of the Federal Courts, there is still room for improvement.
As pointed out by retired Justice Rose Ukeje, the democratication of information and the rise of social media makes more people interested and even have ring side seats in real time to the carryings-on in court.
This, she says has given rise positively or negatively, depending on what side of the divide one stands to judicial activism and activists.
“These people sometimes have scant if any knowledge of the law but have platforms to disseminate not so sound or sometimes out right un-imaginable legal opinions on topical cases.
“The information and the informant sometimes have the benefit of anonymity and escape with their sensationalism more often than not with tragic outcomes.
“Ironically, the learned profession is now populated by non-learned commentators and quacks,’’ she said.
Social commentators have opined that to enhance the performance of the judiciary, it must be granted full financial autonomy.
They say it has been forced into the position of a whipping child by both the executive and legislative arms of government because of its financial dependence on them.
Commentators further say that deliberate steps are taken to ensure that the judiciary is indeed the last hope of the common man.
They also call on the court to embrace full scale information communication and technology to enable it synchronise its proceedings.
This is to prevent situations were desperate litigants and their counsel take advantage of the non-synchronisation to engage in forum-shopping,
Legal experts say forum shopping implies strategically selecting a court or jurisdiction based on perceived advantages which includes jury composition and favourable laws.
This practice has caused the embarrassing situations of conflicting judgments.
News Agency of Nigeria.