Decongest Prisons: Judges overburdened with frivolous cases – Ex-Oyo AG

A Senior Advocate of Nigeria and former Oyo State Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Mutalubi Adebayo, speaks to DANIEL AYANTOYE on many election cases in court, how to decongest Nigerian prisons, among other issues

Numerous lawsuits follow every election in Nigeria. Don’t you think this is a worrisome development in our electoral process?

It happens anywhere. Taking your grievance before any court of law is a constitutional right. It is a civil way of resolving disputes, be it in business or personal activities. You must seek redress in the judiciary. If you are not allowing the court to resolve your disputes, the other alternative is that you may be inviting anarchy or having recourse to lawlessness, which is not good at all.

Are you saying a situation where almost every election outcome in the country attracts litigation is not worrisome?

It should not, because most electoral processes come with litigation, and this is where the ball stops. After the entire process and the voters have cast their votes, the constitution gives room for anyone who is not pleased to approach the court for redress, instead of going on the street to protest, riot, or cause chaos. The apex court, which is the Supreme Court, depending on the matter, is the final stop, and this is what has happened with the last general elections, especially the presidential election. If you don’t give that opportunity to review the election aside from what INEC has declared, people will not be happy and satisfied, and this may lead to a revolt by the people, which won’t be a good development. In modern societies, the resolution of disputes by courts is a decent and civil way, as opposed to resorting to self-help and anarchy.

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What then can reduce the level of litigation in Nigerian elections?

In this part of the world, we are just too litigious. Even in chieftaincy titles, land matters, estate, personal, and family issues, you will see people in court for judicial resolution of disputes, which are good developments. It shows that our people are embracing decency, law, and order to settle disputes. The situations we have in electoral disputes are that when the situation or the outcome does not work in the favour of most contestants, they go to the election tribunals for resolution of all manners of disputes, including those that are very frivolous with no chance of success at all. One thing I have identified over time is that Nigerian politicians don’t have a good spirit of sportsmanship.

Some have said the court’s sacking of candidates declared winners by INEC presents the electoral umpire as a failure in conducting free and fair elections. What’s your take on this?

When parties approach the court to settle electoral disputes, it is within the prerogative of the court to dismiss the suit, order a rerun, or declare a new winner. But that does not limit the role of INEC in the electoral process.

Courts sometimes embrace technicalities to dismiss a case that many believe should go the other way. Do you think courts should do away with such technicalities and hear cases based on their merit?

Under the old Electoral Act in which many cases were decided before, you could have objections in a petition challenging the competence of the petition or the jurisdiction of the tribunal itself, and the tribunal is bound to hear it and give its decisions on it one way or another. Petitions might be terminated at that stage in some cases, while others might be dismissed or refused. But under the present regime, all rulings and objections, no matter how good they might be, will just be heard, and rulings on them will be delivered at the time the final judgment is being delivered.

This is a welcome development because it allows for the determination of all electoral disputes on merit. If the procedure under the old electoral regime were to be in operation under the present dispensation, all the petitions filed concerning the presidential elections would have been terminated or struck out at the level of preliminary objections.

Many have accused the judiciary of pandering to the whims of the executive. Some have said outright that the Nigerian judiciary is corrupt. What are your views on these issues?

Our judiciary is one of the best in the whole world. No nation’s judiciary is tasked with or burdened the way ours is in this country. It is highly tasked and overburdened. People will bring all manner of cases before the courts, and they will be heard. While it is true that, in every other sector of our national life, we may have some bad eggs among our judges, and truly we do have them, by and large, our judges have been excellent in the discharge of their constitutional duties.

Of all the three arms of government that we have, the judiciary is the least paid, and the judges also work in a most non-conducive environment, yet they are the best in terms of performance on assigned roles and duties among the three.

It has been said that the financial independence of the judiciary should be non-negotiable in any society that wants to grow. Some have questioned the independence of the judiciary when this arm of government still relies on governors to get things like judges’ quarters, among others. Do you think the country will ever experience a truly independent judiciary?

As far as I am concerned, the Nigerian judiciary is independent, and they have been doing wonders. Yes, we can still improve on it. Their budget should be released timely, and their salaries should be reviewed regularly. They deserve better working conditions, a conducive environment, and better welfare. On whether the government is controlling the judiciary, I believe so much that the judiciary is doing its job as the constitution provides and it is not being controlled.

It is common knowledge that judges and other judiciary workers don’t earn much as salaries. Considering the current economic realities, what should be done to correct this anomaly?

The salary of judicial workers is generally due for review. The last time it was reviewed was over 10 years ago. We must take the welfare of our judges seriously. If you don’t want them to compromise, you must ensure that they get what is due to them. We must take the welfare of our judges seriously, and they must be paid promptly, as this will ensure a smooth dispensation of their duties. People should also do away with this level of distrust and misconception they have about the judiciary.

It should not be when judgment is in your favour that you will applaud the judiciary for having done well, but when the judgment is against you, then you say the judges have compromised. All these should stop because they are not only unfair but also a gross display of crudity. Nigerians should learn to trust the judiciary and accept judgments as they are. It is difficult for judges to make wrong judgments because they speak based on the evidence and facts presented before them, which are also in line with the applicable laws.

You said it is difficult for judges to make mistakes with their judgments, but in situations where one court declares a winner and another court rules against it, will you not consider that as a mistake by the judges?

Judges are mortals and human beings; they are bound to make mistakes. However, the mistakes must be those of the head and not those of the heart or mind. Mistakes of the head are inadvertent mistakes. They are innocent mistakes.

On the other hand, mistakes of the minds or those of the hearts are deliberate mistakes that are products of compromise or influence, and they may also be due to love and affection for one of the parties and could also be due to malice, hatred, or ill-will for the other parties. Such prejudices and biases are contrary to the oath of office and the judicial oath subscribed to by judicial officers when they were appointed.

Again, the decisions of courts of co-ordinate jurisdictions are not binding on each other but are merely persuasive. However, lower courts are bound to apply and follow the decisions of the higher courts, especially those of the Supreme Court.

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