The Supreme Court has not had the rosiest of times recently, having been rocked by a series of scandals in the past few years, including the President’s unprecedented suspension of the sitting Chief Justice in 2019, which the judiciary was reluctant to accept because it had no constitutional backing.
This pattern continued when Hope Uzodinma, one of the candidates of the All Progressives Congress (APC), challenged his electoral loss in the 2020 Imo State Gubernatorial elections, which was an act that displeased many people. Mr Uzodinma had finished in fourth place in the elections by a rather wide margin, yet he took his case to the Supreme Court, and what came next was stunning. The Supreme Court did not only side with Mr Uzodinma in invalidating the election results, it turned every established legal principle on its head by accepting doctored result sheets that were contested and not signed by the returning officer of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The Court then vaulted Mr Uzodinma from fourth place into the Imo State Government House.
A similar case of judicial absurdity played out in the Nigerian apex court on Monday, 6 February 2023, when a three-against-two split judgement of its five-member panel, led by Centus Nweke, declared the Senate President, Ahmad Lawan as the rightful senatorial candidate for Yobe North against Bashir Machina’s candidature.
Senator Ahmed Lawan, having ambitions for a loftier office, chose to forgo participating in the Yobe North Senate Primary of the APC in favour of contesting in the Presidential primaries. He submitted a letter to the state chapter of the APC to this effect and reached for his party’s presidential ticket. In his voluntary absence, the party conducted a primary according to the law, and Bashir Machina emerged unopposed as the party’s Senatorial candidate for the Yobe North seat. However, his certified win was challenged when Senator Lawan returned to retrieve his Senatorial seat after his presidential aspirations flamed out. Mr Machina insisted that he was the right candidate for the Senate seat and refused to hand over the ticket; therefore, Yobe State’s APC decided to conduct a new primary in which Senator Lawan emerged victorious, and his name was sent to INEC. This made Mr Machina take legal action; he won at the High Court and the Court of Appeal, which gave short shrift to the arguments put forth by Senator Lawan and the APC. Their rulings displeased Senator Lawan, who headed to the land’s top court, and (once again) the Court stunned the public by declaring him the authentic APC senatorial candidate despite his non-participation in the only recognised primary that made Mr Machina the lawful winner,
The minority decision of the Supreme Court, which consisted of two members of the panel, Adamu Jauro and Emmanuel Agim held that the conduct of another primary on 9 June 2022, where Mr Lawan emerged, was in breach of Section 84 (5) of the Electoral Act 2022 as the APC never cancelled the primary election which was held on 28 May. The dissenting justices’ position is more sensible. In the lead dissenting judgement, Mr Jauro held that the APC “appeal is devoid of merit” and slammed a ₦3 million fine against the APC in favour of Mr Machina.
Justice Centus Nweze, who wrote the lead majority judgement, however, held the opinion that ”Bashir Machina was wrong to have commenced his suit at the trial court via an originating summons and without oral evidence to prove allegations of fraud,” adding that “his suit ought to have commenced via a writ of summons.” It seems that the leading judgement did not comment on the substance of which primary election was valid and why. The court reasoned that Mr Machina had initiated his suit via the wrong means, thus rendering it incompetent, so the court declined to examine the substance of the matter. The judgement, which was rendered on a procedural technicality, stands in contrast with established precedent and principles of court practice, which affirms that substantial justice should be prioritised over a reliance on technicalities, which can produce odd outcomes such as this judgement.
An implication of this judgement is that it has made a mockery of the internal democracy which should play out within political parties and which Nigerian courts have historically sought to protect under fundamental rights principles. This judgement gives credence to the fact that the leadership of political parties can always enforce their preferred candidates, even if the candidate loses or does not even participate in primary contests.
The timing of the judicial decision, just 19 days to the first leg of the 2023 general elections, might weaken voter interest and turnout as Nigerians might conclude that the courts will ultimately determine the winner, not the electorate. By producing rulings broadly favourable to the APC, the court seems to have presented itself yet again as a tool in the hands of politicians, who might want to manipulate the electoral process to their advantage. The perception of judicial independence, already diminished under the current government, has been further eroded by this verdict. This is a worrisome trend that must be addressed because it is essential that the judiciary is seen as an impartial and independent arm of government, not only for the electoral process to be fair and just for all, but also for the long-term growth and health of the country’s democracy.