Opinion

The finality of the Supreme Court

The Bayelsa election decision and its imminent considerations

By Bamidele IKUSIKA

The Supreme Court on 13th February 2019 disqualified the winners of the last governorship election in Bayelsa State (David Lyon and Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo of the All Progressive Congress (APC)) on the basis that the deputy-governor elect presented certificates with different names, which were starkly inconsistent with the name presented to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). The effect of this incongruity in the Deputy’s nomenclatures was that he failed to substantially satisfy the requirements as prescribed by the extant law on elections in Nigeria, i.e., the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended). Section 31(5) of the above Act provides in effect that candidates must correctly and truthfully present information on their qualifications to INEC. In the same vein, Section 138(1)(a) of the Electoral Act makes it abundantly lucid that an election may be challenged where a person whose election is questioned was, at the time of the election, not qualified to contest the election.  The implication of the above provisions of law is that the candidacy of both individuals under the aegis of the APC was incurably defective. This is because the Constitution under Section 187 (1) & (2) treats the validity of the qualifications of the deputy governorship candidate to fundamentally affect the governor and vice versa. Thus, by virtue of his (Degi-Eremienyo’s) disqualification, the joint ticket held by him and the governor elect – David Lyon – was a nullity. To capture this in another sense, in the eyes of the law, the APC never validly contested that election.

This decision of the Supreme Court came as an untimely and unexpected shock to many who were already initiating plans towards the swearing in of the governor elect barely twenty-four hours to the ceremony. Others received it with gladness as they drenched the Apex Court with encomiums for a well-considered ruling.

Following this annulment of the candidacy of the APC to contest at the last governorship election in Bayelsa, a team of legal titans was organized by the APC to initiate applications for a review of the judgement of the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court which overturned their victory at the last election. By and by, these applications were all dismissed!

The Supreme Court is the highest Court in the cadre of Courts in Nigeria (Section 230(1) of the 1999 Constitution). This necessarily means that being at the pinnacle of the judicial ladder, its decisions enjoy monopoly of finality in any proceeding in the Nigeria legal system. Section 235 of the Constitution (as amended) expressly provides that no appeal can lie to any other body from any determination of the Supreme Court. This is the final Court and the decisions of the Court are final. The Court has held that its decision is final in the real sense of finality. It is final forever. Only a legislation ad hominen can alter it.

It is worthy of note that the finality or Supremacy of the Apex Court does not however absolve it of any frailty and omission. The Court is not presided over by supermen, robots or aliens in the wildest imagination of perfectionism and omnipotence. In the Supreme Court are justices who are humans with the predilections, idiosyncrasies, ideals, sentiments, socio-political, economic and cultural makeup and other qualities ascribable to every homo sapiens. Oputa JSC (of blessed memory), more than two decades ago, sagaciously noted in Adegoke Motors Ltd v. Adesanya (1989) 13 NWLR (Pt. 109) 250 that: 

 “…We are final not because we are infallible, rather we are infallible because we are final. Justices of this Court are human beings, capable of erring. It will certainly be short-sighted arrogance not to accept this obvious truth. It is also true that this Court can do inestimable good through its wise decisions. Similarly, the Court can do incalculable harm through its mistakes. When therefore it appears to learned counsel that any decision of this Court has been given per incuriam, such counsel should have the boldness and courage to ask that such a decision be overruled. This Court has the power to overrule itself (and has done so in the past) for it gladly accepts that it is far better to admit an error than to persevere in error….”

Accordingly, Order 8, Rule 16 of the Supreme Court Rules (as amended) states unambiguously that: 

“The Court shall not review any judgement once given and delivered by it save to correct any clerical mistake or some error arising from any accidental slip or omission, or to vary the judgement or order as to give effect to its meaning or intention. A judgement or order shall not be varied when it correctly represents what the Court decided nor shall the operative and substantive part of it be varied and a different form substituted.” 

From the foregoing, it is indicative and crystal that indeed the Supreme Court can review its decisions or judgements, and in the event that such flaw or omission is fundamental, the decisions could be changed. However, conditions precedent for such review must be substantially satisfied; to wit: (i) to correct any clerical mistake or (ii) to correct any error arising from any accidental slip or omission or (iii) to vary the judgement or order as to give effect to its meaning or intention. Thus, where a party intends to challenge the finality of decision of the Supreme Court in any legal dispute, such party must sufficiently show that such decision comes under either one of the above conditions to warrant such judgement review; otherwise it is fruitless to embark on such sojourn. 

Importantly, it should be noted also that a judgement or order of the Supreme Court shall not be varied when it correctly represents what the Court decided nor shall the operative and substantive part of it (the judgement or order) be varied and a different form substituted. In essence, where such decision captures the true intent and spirit of the Court, it cannot be varied or substituted. From all it is worth, what constitute an acceptable interpretation of each of the highlighted circumstances in view of Order 8, Rule 16 of the Supreme Court would depend squarely on the peculiarity of each surrounding case. 

Taking the Bayelsa election matter into proper consideration, this writer is baffled with the rationale behind the application for the review of the Court’s judgement in that matter by the aggrieved party (the APC). From all indications, the decision of the Court was well-considered given the surrounding circumstances of the election. Disqualification of the deputy governor elect of the APC on the ground of false information provided to INEC intrinsically affected the candidacy of the governor elect at that election. It was as though they never contested as you cannot put something on nothing and expect it to stand. In its judgement in that decision as further validated by Section 36(1) of the Electoral Act, it stated with optical clarity that: ‘’…Both candidates disqualified are deemed not to be candidates at the Governorship election conducted in Bayelsa State.” All votes cast in favour of the APC were ‘wasted’ and had no viability or force in that election; neither did it in law. Little wonder, the Court in its juristic and judicious eloquence ordered correctly that the candidate with the highest number of lawful votes cast with the requisite constitutional (or geographical) spread be declared winner and a Certificate of Return be issued accordingly by INEC.  This ultimately resulted in emergence of the candidates of the PDP as the duly elected governor of the State. 

In the face of this all, as opined by this writer, it is brazenly vexatious to file an application for a review of the Supreme Court’s decision in view of the prevailing circumstances of the election seeing that there was no occasion whatsoever that warranted such. The facts are notoriously clear; there was no infraction on due process, and justice was not only seen to be done but manifestly done. As serially noted by the Courts, especially the case of Godwin Josiah v The State (1985) 1 NWLR (Pt. 11) page 125 at 141 per Oputa JSC: Justice is a three-way traffic – for the plaintiff, for the defendant and for the society at large.

It is the thematic preoccupation of this fact (the dismissal by the Court of the application to review its judgement) that further bolster this writer to highlight some salient matters worthy of imminent considerations.

Foremost, it is considered that the Court’s decision would apprise vexatious litigants cum legal practitioners of the stand of the Courts on frivolous claims. The Court noted in Bewaji v. Obasanjo (2008) 9 NWLR (Pt. 1093) 540 at 579 that the Courts have inherent powers to deal with vexatious litigants or frivolous claims.

The ruling of the Supreme Court per Justice Sylvester Ngwuta noted with ostensible infuriation when it described the applications filed by the APC and its governorship candidates as “vexatious, frivolous, and constitute a gross abuse of court process.” In Arubo v. Aiyeleri (1993) 3 NWLR (PT. 280) 126, the abuse of court process was defined to simply mean that the process of the court has not been used bona fide (in good faith) and properly. It also connotes the employment of judicial process by a party in improper use to the irritation and annoyance of his opponent and the efficient and effective administration of justice.

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Justice Amina Augie equally took offence at such frivolity, expressing utter regret that highly placed members of the bar were at the front-burner of an application aimed at desecrating the sanctimonious temple of the court. The awarded cost against such unnerved display of frivolity is sufficient, though inadequate. As a slight cautionary reprimand, it is believed that legal practitioners would in consequence think twice before venturing into a wild goose chase either at the Supreme Court or any other lower Court.  

More so, it won’t be far-fetched to state that this adjudged frivolous application in some way is intended to manifestly undermine the authority and dignity of the Court and showing disrespect to the Court. In the case of Oko v. Aganyi (2012) LPELR – 19704 (CA), the Court hinted that where there is a clear-cut case of contempt, the courts are enjoined to use or invoke the power to punish for such contempt.  Through its decision on this matter, the Court stoutly entrenched that ideal that it would preserve its image and norms against any attempt to defile its sacred temple, of which legal practitioners are ministers. On no account would gross abuse of court be nurtured to birth; it would be terminated at conception.

It is also considered that candidates vying for any office during elections would take extra-steps to ensure that all proof of their qualification as required by law are properly scrutinized. It has been insinuated in different quarters that political parties hitherto operate by a systemic practice where flagbearers are picked based on how ‘fat’ their bank accounts are without taking the pain to vet their qualifications. This decision of the Supreme Court would ignite the consciousness of political candidates and their respective parties to take more seriously the verification processes and keep their house in order so they do not jeopardize their chances at the polls in future elections.

In conclusion, we must salute the geriatric wisdom of the Court to once again affix its stamp of rejection on the importation and purported adoption of an application to challenge the finality of its decision where no occasion clearly demands such. Surely, there must be an end to all judicial proceedings. Legal practitioners must take time to critically evaluate the facts of each before instituting proceeding which constitute an affront on our judicial system. The pendulum of justice always swings in circles. One cannot always have it one’s way!

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