Sometimes I wonder why I did not read Law. I wonder why I neglected such a “lucrative” course even when the opportunity beckoned. In 1983, I had the opportunity to read law but spurned it with one touch of my feet. I got admission to read Law at the University of Ife when I was already in my Second Year in Sociology at the University of Calabar.
I tried my best to have the best of the two worlds. I would spend two weeks at Unical and hop into the next available bus heading to Ife for another two weeks. I was not ready to let go of any, and I tried to hold the light burning on both ends for a year until the exams of both universities fell in the same week, the same day. It was then that I knew the game was up, I can go no further! To extricate myself from this labyrinth of maddening ambition, I called my brother and told him the mess I had fallen into. He advised that I choose one, or else I stood the risk of losing all. But I was not prepared to lose any.
I don’t know what to call it, whether fate or providence, but all I know is that I weighed both courses and decided one morning to ditch Law. In her autobiographical novel, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, the American memoirist, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou said the caged bird is never free. He longs for freedom and “leaps on the back of the wind to float downstream”, but it is never free.
“A free bird leaps on the back
Of the wind and floats downstream
Till the current ends and dips his wing
In the orange suns rays
And dares to claim the sky.
But a BIRD that stalks down his narrow cage
Can seldom see through his bars of rage
His wings are clipped and his feet are tied
So he opens his throat to sing.
The caged bird sings with a fearful trill”.
In retrospect, as one who looks at issues with a clean pair of glasses, I wonder if it could have been by the stroke of serendipity that I did not read Law. And I ask, if I had read Law, could I have practiced? If I had been a lawyer, I’m afraid I would not have been found fit to make a career in the bench. In truth, I could have messed it up because, as Martin Luther King Jr. would put it, “no one gonna mess me around”.
Johann Goethe said that “while man’s desires and aspirations stir, he cannot choose but err, yet in his erring journey through the night, instinctively he travels toward the light”. I, instinctively, may have travelled toward the light by making a career in journalism. And became an “out-law”!
But why would a bird be caged and still he sings? I think I know why the caged bird sings: He sings because he wants to be free. He sings because he knows that though battered, no one can take his role in society. He sings because he knows that one day he shall be free from his cage and leap for joy. Maya Angelou’s poem was talking about herself and the black struggle, but when I look at our society today, I think she had us in mind, and I think it was also a metaphorical reference to the Nigerian judiciary.
The Nigerian judiciary is like a caged bird. It wants to leap for freedom but “his wings are clipped and his feet are tied”. It wants its freedom, freedom to dispense justice, freedom to fulfill its manifest role in society. But it still limps with a “fearful trill”.
The judicial somersaults in the country, especially the recent contradicting judgements of two federal high courts over one matter could have been the reason I did not read Law. The conflicting judgements, as embarrassing as they are, offers the society a lens through which we can look at what is going on in our judiciary today.
Last week, the People’s Democratic Party PDP came back from Port Harcourt empty. It came home with neither a convention nor elected officers because of what I may call judicial tyranny. The opportunity to claim back its place as the biggest political party in Africa came a cropper because the judiciary spoke with both sides of the mouth, and it needed one versed in the art of interpreting tongues to know which way to go. While the Abuja Federal High Court on Monday last week granted Sheriff his prayers to stop the convention, PDP on Tuesday ran to the Port Harcourt Federal High Court and vacated the injunction. But when party delegates across the country were trooping to Port Harcourt for the convention, Sheriff went back to the same court and came out with a freshly minted judgment, or what someone referred to as “judicial deterrent”, stopping the convention. What worries me is not that Sheriff got an injunction and the time he got it, what worries me is the spate of conflicting court judgements in our judicial system, the militant tone in which it is worded and the language of urgency it is couched.
While Justice Ibrahim Watila of the Federal High Court Port Harcourt Division ruled and gave PDP a comprehensive order to go on with its convention, Justice Okon Abang of Abuja Federal High Court replied with what he called a “judicial response” stopping it. While Watila ordered INEC, Police, DSS and other security agencies to monitor and ensure security during the convention, Abang ordered INEC, Police and other security agencies to ensure that the convention does not hold. It was like a battle for supremacy, the Abuja court wanted to assert its authority even when the proper thing would have been, since they are courts of equal jurisdiction, to refuse hearing it. Since the other had ruled, the proper judicial process for the aggrieved to follow would have been to appeal to a higher court instead of running to a court of coordinate jurisdiction for redress.
Let us again take a look at how the judgement of the same federal high court at Abuja jolted the country and almost incinerated Abia State in the tussle for who takes over the state. The court declared Mr. Okezie Ikpeazu, the PDP elected governor of Abia State, unfit to be governor on tax related issues and ordered INEC to “immediately” issue a certificate of return to Ogah and swear him (Ogah) in “immediately”. In the process of validating the court order, the Independent National Electoral Commission was accused of being partisan because of the haste in which it complied with the court decision. Abians from the two political divides took to the streets, some dancing, and some—like Elijah—threatened to rain down fire. While the inferno was raging, the court insisted its order must be obeyed. Ogah wanted the Umuahia High Court to swear him in as governor as the Abuja court ordered, Ikpeazu said no, over his dead body. And so, a state of anarchy ensued as the confusion on who was the governor lingered.
The rot in our judicial system is so deep that we need to pray for its redemption. And Nigerians are asking whether they are no body of rules governing the judicial system in our country?
It is because of this confusion in our judicial system that made the former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Dahiru Mustapher to lament: “These conflicting judgements not only confuse counsel but the public as well, leading to uncertainty regarding the public perception of our ability to guarantee unequivocal justice. This portrays the judicial process as a game of Russian Roulette where any outcome is possible”. Yes, his observation was in order, only that the revered Justice did not know that the judiciary has not only become “a game of Russian Roulette where any outcome is possible”, but equally a place where the poor innocent is guilty because the rich has paid for the justice due him at black market rate.
Our judiciary appears to have fallen on bad days. It needs to be saved from the rot it has fallen in. It has become a caged bird with wings clipped and feet tied. Men of means have clipped its wings while people of power have tied its feet, leaving us with a dismembered body gasping for breath. Politicians who are supposed to play politics and leave the bench alone for the serious minded lawyers are appointed as judges. They deliver judgement without any precedent known to law, the principle of “stare decisis” is ignored to the detriment of the profession and society. Such judgements erode public confidence in the judiciary and create much doubts if the judiciary is still the last hope of the common man. With the abortion of the Port Harcourt PDP convention, the All Progressives Congress may be relishing in the schandefreude, but it is society and our judicial system which has become a pawn in the hands of politicians that are in danger.
What is happening in our judiciary today should serve as a danger signal to us that our country is in decline. When we seek justice and run to court with the hope of getting it and come back disappointed, people will tend to look for justice elsewhere, which most often will turn to jungle justice.
More often than not, it is corruption in the system that subverts justice and leads to discordant judgments. This is the era of change, fighting corruption in the system does not only mean catching politicians that stole and stowed our money away, it also means fighting injustice in the system. The President should spread his anti-corruption dragnet wider to catch those who hide under the cover of the law to subvert the law. The judiciary should properly scrutinize those it appoints into the bench to make sure people with political leanings are not allowed in.
Above all, Sheriff should calm down and let peace reign in PDP, seeking alliances with institutions cannot give us the country of our dream. Democracy thrives when there is a viable opposition. And the country is stronger and better when the institutions are working.
And for Sheriff, my friend in the United States sent me one funny Ethiopian proverb for him. It says, “When you see a woman with her legs open, never tell her to close them, because you do not know her source of fresh air”. But for Sheriff, we can afford to tell him to close his legs because we know his source of fresh air!