Anyone who has seen enough of Nigerian history and politics would have known beforehand how Wednesday would unfold. Despite all the build-up of anticipation in some quarters, the procedure of presidential electoral petition tribunals is standard: they deliver their judgment (expectedly in favour of the incumbent), analysts will dissect the verdict for days (maximum, a week), and all the while regular life will go on without missing a tempo. Every presidential election since 1999 has been a subject of litigation, and each has unfurled in virtually the same way. If the tribunal does not rule on substance, they will do so on technicalities. Either way, there was no dislodging an incumbent.
Going to the tribunal for Peter Obi of the Labour Party and Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party was thus tricky right from the start. There is virtually no reasonable person who did not see the defectiveness of the election. Nigerians saw it; foreign observers affirmed as much. Yet, going to court does not mean a receiver of stolen goods would be dispossessed of their loot. Presidential election petitions are adjudged, not based on the integrity of their conduct, but on the presumption that the declared winner would still have won despite the irregularities. Contesting an election in court, even when you are unsure of victory, does no more than officially register your discontent. If you do not formalise your grievance, the declared winner (and their followers) will take the acquiescence as proof of the legitimacy of the election. They would have publicly reasoned that if their opponents had any worthwhile evidence to the contrary, they would have challenged the results in the courts. At the same time, by litigating, contenders risk looking like bitter losers. My attitude to these things is that if it does not matter either way, you might as well do it anyway.
Yet one wonders why this time feels so different that some members of the judiciary and government officials thought it was worth undercutting the public expectations one way or the other. Partisans would, of course, write off the dissidence of a section of the public as mere delusions but discerning minds will probe why people became overly invested in the election petition process even when our history is instructive enough. My thought is that what people are looking for is not just judgment but justice, a sense that is wrong with the polity can still be righted. But what about the present political atmosphere is making people look for a breakdown of the existing order?
Looking beyond Nigeria for a moment, one finds that the “miracle” of bringing an abrupt end to the existing oppressive political order that people wanted the presidential election tribunal to perform is what the coups springing up on the continent are currently achieving. There is a good reason no one, except political elites of course, is bemoaning the erosion of democracy in different parts of Africa where the military has taken over. The ousted President of Gabon, Ali Bongo, gave himself away as another out-of-touch-with-reality political elite when he made a video asking people to protest on his behalf. Other than himself and his cronies, for whom is the coup that has stripped him of his privilege and power a loss? Say what you choose about the abomination of coups, but they satiate the desire of those who want cosmic justice in a socio-political arrangement that does nothing more than diminish them. Take away the partisanship of religious and tribal sentiments in Nigeria, and you will find that most of us are similarly disillusioned.
That is because our politics no longer represent our political identities or aspirations. It has morphed into a monstrosity, feeding on our hopes, dreams, and collective potential, all the while acquiring a strength that makes it difficult to dislodge. That ordinary citizens saw judicial intervention as a means to end the present political arrangement suggests they are yearning for—as far as democratic institutions go anyway—a force of power that can upturn the ongoing oppressive order. I wonder if the judiciary, in writing Wednesday’s judgment, apprehended the nature of the discontent or this all was just for them a technical procedure of interpreting the law?
Judging by how retired Supreme Court judge Mary Odili tried to school everyone on the issue at a Sunday event, I am unsure this reads to them as anything more than what subsists in a day’s work. While speaking regarding the presidential election tribunal, she expressed hope that “when the seasons (of elections and attendant litigations) are gone, the court gets back to their natural and regular duties of adjudication regarding the affairs, and rights of all persons irrespective of their status in life.” Well, while the people her speech targeted will expectedly move past the verdict, the cynicism with which they have regarded the judiciary in the past months (and which culminated in the “all eyes on the judiciary” campaign the government tried to repress) will keep corroding trust in the institution. There is really no “moving on” here.
Some other examples do not show that judicial officers are taking the public criticism they have received in good faith. In February for instance, when some critics took up the Supreme Court on some curious judgments it had delivered in recent times, the institution responded with an arrogant, condescending, and—unfortunately too—a tawdrily written piece that called the professionalism of that institution into judgment.
Roughly a month ago too, the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria ordered that the “all eyes on the judiciary” billboards be pulled down. ARCON went as far as suspending top officials who approved the billboards and disbanding their unit. The overkill suggests that the moral pressuring the billboard sought to achieve was effective. The ARCON director-general who ordered the measures, Olalekan Fadolapo, claimed that the campaign is “considered a blackmail against the Nigerian judiciary, the presidential election petition tribunal and particularly the justices of the tribunal who are expected to discharge their judicial functions without fear or favour over a matter that is currently jus pendis.”
In a society where government agencies and officials routinely flaunt court directives, who really is in a better position to “blackmail” judges? Is it the faceless people who put up a billboard or those with actual political power who can cow judges to submission? Fadolapo must have been on vacation out of the planet when a senator, Adamu Bulkachuwa, stood up in the hollowed chamber of the National Assembly and indiscreetly confessed that, as Appeal Court president, his wife extended favours to his lawmaker colleagues.
Senator Bulkachawa openly admitted what everyone knew all along: judicial outcomes are about the network of influence and not necessarily the law. Female judges, especially the ones married to politicians, are particularly vulnerable in this respect because there is a limit to which they can resist political pressure from their own husbands. Mrs Bulkachawa, of course, disowned her husband’s loose mouth but his unprompted statement already gave them away as influence peddlers.
In a country where the law is studiously observed that faux pas would end their careers. She would face a judicial panel, and every case she ever presided over would be subjected to review. In Nigeria, nothing happened. Mind you, the people who got away with such egregiousness are those Fadolapo thinks can be “blackmailed” by a mere billboard!
Rather than merely moving on, the judiciary owes it to itself to at least make some effort to understand that setting all eyes on the judiciary is a search for justice, for meaning, and for righteousness. Ignoring it will not make it go away. It just means a time will come when they take their eyes off the judiciary and become a law unto themselves.