The names of about 257 Judges of various States’ High Courts, Federal High Court, National Industrial Court and some Chief Magistrates, were published to hear election petitions. Consequently, the selected Judges will have to suspend hearing their regular matters for the period that they will be on this special assignment. Section 285(9) of the Constitution, as amended, provides the basis for time factor in the determination of election disputes.
Nigerian politicians know how to take care of themselves and their interests when the need arises. The Preamble of the provisions of the Fundamental Rights (Enforcement Procedure) Rules, 2009 requires that cases bordering on violations of fundamental rights of citizens of the federal Republic of Nigeria are to be given accelerated hearing. By the provisions of section 36(4) of the Constitution “any person charged with a criminal offence…shall..be entitled to a fair hearing within a reasonable time..” These provisions are hardly complied with by the Courts. We now have fundamental rights enforcement cases and criminal trials spending an average of 2 and 5 years respectively at the trial court. No sense of urgency or priority given them, as required by the law. Sadly, these are now part of the cases that will be further adjourned for another 6 more months.
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It is concerning that a single Judge who usually presides over murder and other very sensitive cases and who can sentence a Defendant to death, or make an order impeaching a Governor, is not good enough to sit alone as a Judge to hear an election petition. Ironically, all the pre-election matters filed at the Federal High Court were heard and concluded by Judges sitting alone in their regular courts. There was no case of Judges traveling from far-flung parts of the country to converge in a particular court only to hear an election petition. In my view, the basis for an Election Tribunal being constituted by a panel of 3 Judges is therefore, not compelling.
Are we now saying that some lawsuits are more important and deserving of more priority attention than others? Are we saying that the poor, retired and frail-looking civil servant whose pension and gratuity have not been paid for many years and has sued his employer, would have to wait for another 6 months to 1 year, for his case to be heard? How do we define which case should be prioritized, considering that section 42(1) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria has forbidden the discriminatory conferment of privileges and advantages on selected class of persons, when same is not made available to others? Should the Judiciary be used to discriminate amongst Nigerians?
Many legal scholars, including two prominent Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Femi Falana, SAN and Jubril Samuel Okutepa, SAN, have criticized the current judicial practice and advocated for a more reformative approach that will not disrupt routine court proceedings. It has been advocated that retired Judges and senior lawyers should be appointed on contract basis to hear election petitions. The need for the immediate appointment of more Judges also been suggested. There is no State High Court that can claim to have sufficient number of Judges to man their High Courts. In Delta State, many of the Judges run two courts in different judicial divisions. Inspite of the fact that the State is grossly lacking in the required number of Judges, 4 Judges (two from the High Court, Warri) were selected to suspend their regular court sitting for at least 6 months. All the cases in those courts will now suffer until the Judges resume after concluding their election assignments.