By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu
The traditional view is that judges speak most credibly and authoritatively through their judgments. It is at best unusual and mostly ill-advised for them to resort to the soapbox or its diction to rationalise what they do on the Bench. But we are in extraordinary times in Nigeria.
Supreme Courts are places where lawyers and judges regularly encounter one another. On 17 November 2023, one of such encounters took place, not in the regular halls of Nigeria’s Supreme Court in Abuja but in its Mosque. There, Abdulaziz Waziri, a Justice of Appeal wedded Zaynab Bashir, a Judge of Nigeria’s National Industrial Court. The wedding reception followed thereafter at a well-appointed venue in up-market Maitama, in Abuja.
Justice Waziri has been nothing if not busy this season. For his duty station in this election petition appeal season, Justice Waziri was stationed in Jos, Plateau State, where the Justices of Appeal, in the state from which the President of the Court of Appeal hails, have been busy re-writing the results of the elections, taking seats from one party and generously handing them to another party on the bases of jurisprudence that can most charitably be described as extraordinarily specious.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. From Jos, His Lordship went to Abuja for his judicial wedding at the Supreme Court. The Location and duration of the Honeymoon was, advisedly, ensconced in discretion.
A mere 25 days after the wedding, however, the aforesaid Justice Abdulaziz Waziri was listed to deliver the opening keynote at the Law Week of the Nigerian Bar Association in Yola. Predictable rumours that the jollities of a richly earned honeymoon would distract His Lordship from this appearance proved to be unfounded.
Fate and elective politics have been recently generous to His Lordship. Yola was the place where he honed his skills in the law and where his judicial career began. In March 2016, Governor Jibrilla Bindow swore him in as a judge of the High Court of Adamawa State. A mere five years later, in June 2021, he became a Justice of the Court of Appeal.
Regular judicial duty and election petition season conspired to keep His Lordship away from home, so, the invitation by the Yola Bar served a good purpose. On 12 December, Justice Waziri arrived Yola in person and went swinging with the gusto of a man whose virility had been recently tested and proved.
Speaking to the Yola Bar, Justice Waziri launched into an astonishing defence of the jurisprudential proclivities of the Court of Appeal in the Plateau State election petition appeals. He invited participants – in a manner of speaking – to understand why the judges know better than the people who should rule over us all and asked them to show greater understanding of the generosity of the Court of Appeal Bench in overriding the voters of Plateau State and dutifully handing their mandate to persons other than those whom they had chosen.
Urging his listeners to “always stand on the side of the law,” His Lordship panned those belly-aching about the judgment of the Court of Appeal, saying that the “critics of the judgment were missing the point as the party (whose seats the Court of Appeal has written away) had no structure on ground at the point of presenting their candidates.” He claimed that the “structures” of the party had been wiped away by a high court decision and that they did not exist for the purpose of conducting the party congresses that yielded their candidates in the elections of 2023.
These remarks by a relatively junior Justice of Appeal were considered sufficiently weighty to make the headlines across all platforms in the country.
It is impossible not to feel considerable sympathy for a man not yet recovered from the exertions of a honeymoon. Any effort to address him must afford him the mitigation of recognising that his head may be located elsewhere whether as a matter of anatomy or as a figure of speech. These extenuating circumstances notwithstanding, these remarks deserve some attention.
The traditional view is that judges speak most credibly and authoritatively through their judgments. It is at best unusual and mostly ill-advised for them to resort to the soapbox or its diction to rationalise what they do on the Bench. But we are in extraordinary times in Nigeria. A generation ago, it would have been considered judicial malpractice for a judge to speak in public about whether or not a political party has “structures” going into an election because few would think that to be the province of concerns that should preoccupy a judicial figure.
In this case, the judge did more than just go out of his substantive province. Jos, the capital of Plateau State, where the Justices of Appeal have done their thing, is located in North-Central Nigeria. It is a drive of over 520 kilometres from Yola, in the North-East, where His Lordship mounted his judicial soap-box.
But it is not altogether unwelcome that His Lordship in this case feels called upon to mount a spirited defence of the detour by the Court of Appeal into the realm of habitual electoral burglary clothed in the ruse of law.
The facts are less complicated than his Lordship tried to portray them. Following the state congresses in Plateau State in 2022, on Augustine Timkuk sued to challenge the legality of what transpired. The defendants included the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
After failing to set aside the congresses and resulting slate of candidates at the High Court, Mr. Timkuk appealed to the Court of Appeal in appeal number CA/J/300/2022 between Augustine Timkuk v. INEC and 6 Others. Days before the onset of election season in 2023, on 11 February 2023, the Court of Appeal sitting in Jos, Plateau State, validated the state congresses and dismissed Mr. Timkuk’s case. There was no appeal against this decision and no judgment exists prior to the election that nullifying the party congresses or the slate of candidates founded on them.
Sitting in a post-election capacity, however, Justice Waziri and his colleagues on a separate panel of the Court of Appeal have acted with injudicious premeditation, ransacking decisions of the self-same court of appeal and inventing justifications for things that endanger the standing of the judicial organ as a deliberative institution constrained by norms of evidence, precedent, logic, and institutional self-restraint. They have done worse than infantilise the people of Plateau State, telling them that they are unfit to choose who represents or governs them. The Justices of the Court of Appeal, none of whom is registered to vote in their State, know best.
The most charitable one can be about this is to describe it as judicial overreach. Others inclined to be less charitable could be forgiven if they described Plateau State as the site of a criminal judicial transaction. The consequences for elective government is destined to be very corrosive. There are precedents from nearby.
In April 2020, Mali’s Constitutional Court overturned the results in 31 parliamentary seats won by the opposition. Its decision to hand these seats over to the ruling party sparked an uprising that led first to the dissolution of the Constitutional Court, later followed by the overthrow of the government in a military coup.
Former Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, mediated that situation unsuccessfully. When Justice Waziri is less consumed by the exertions of a honeymoon and the peregrinations of an itinerant jurist, he may benefit from paying a visit to President Jonathan in Otuoke for a private seminar on how not repeat the Mali crisis in Nigeria.
A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org