Role of judiciary in democratic government: Social engineering or a quagmire? (1)

Ogunsakin Mustapha
12 Min Read
Ebun Olu Adegboruwa SAN

Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, SAN

Some weeks back, I was a guest of the Honourable the Chief Judge of Ogun State, the Honourable Justice (Dr.) Mosunmola Dipeolu to discuss some burning issues at the annual Bar and Bench Forum of the State. The topic was very engaging and would be very useful to all students, teachers and practitioners of law, litigants and indeed all lovers of justice. Please permit me to share my paper with you.


The Honourable The Chief Judge of Ogun State (Dr.) M. A. Dipeolu FICMC, FHNR, eminent and erudite members of the Bench, Senior Advocates of Nigeria, Learned Colleagues and Men in shirts, Legal Officers, Registrars of Courts, law students here present, esteemed members of the press, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. I count it as another privilege and source of pride for me to be invited to speak, yet again at this great and auspicious noble event. Permit me to say distinguished ladies and gentlemen that the topic, “The Role of the Judiciary in Democratic Government; a Social Engineering or a Quagmire” speaks and gives no better holistic reminisce, understanding, assessment, reawakening, in-depth re-examination, re-evaluation, hope, and nurtured perspectives to the Judiciary at this point in time.


Two events have happened in quick succession that should help to shape this discourse more robustly. The first is the signing into law of the Judicial Officers Retirement Age Bill ,which has now placed the legal profession in better stead to reap from the invaluable experiences of our erudite judges. May I then seize this opportunity to congratulate My Noble Lord the Honourable the Chief Judge of Ogun State and indeed all judges for this great development. The second is the confession on the floor of the Senate of the Federal Republic of Nigeria by Senator Adamu Bulkachuwa that he was approached to influence judgments through his wife, the immediate past President of the Court of Appeal. It is worrisome that the Bar and Bench have not reacted formally to this devastating news given the spiral effect and incalculable damage that it has done and will continue to do to the administration of justice in our land. As laudable as the action of the President in unifying the judicial age of judges is however, the explosive revelation made by Senator Bulkachuwa has only helped to confirm the hitherto held view that judgments are for sale in Nigeria, to the highest bidder. Notwithstanding this however, it gladdens my heart that I have appeared and will continue to appear before judges who are very well above board, judges who decide cases according to law and according to their conscience, even in cases involving their known relations and associates. There are many such judges across Nigeria and in particular in the hallowed Bench of Ogun State, who all make me proud everyday, to be a lawyer. I humbly urge you all to continue in that path of honour.


Over two decades ago, our dear country witnessed the birth of a new regime and a new breath of governance, from the dictatorial men in the khaki uniform, who unenthusiastically (after concerted efforts, undeterred agitations and outcry from the lowly-placed, from the elites and other well-meaning Nigerians for justice and trifling support from the West) returned power that they had unsuccessfully wielded and held for more than 30 years (1966 to 1999 – with an interregnum from 1979 to 1983), back to the civilian government. In other words, the road to smooth and yet uninterrupted ride of democratic administrations began on 29th May, 1999 when the former President, Chief Olusegun Matthew Okikiola Aremu Obasanjo (who hails also from the Gateway State) upturned his military uniform to that of a civilian general in civil administration. Though many sectors, parastatals, ministries and other organs, to mention but a few were hampered, truncated and puppeteered by the military governments during their reigns, that did not leave out the judiciary. Modern nation-state functions through a set of institutions. The empirical look at numerical cases at the apex court has shown that fundamentally, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, as amended, has provided for three distinct branches of Government, that is:

i. The Legislature;
ii. The Executive; and
iii. The Judiciary.
Moreover, as we know, the Constitution has assigned each of the formidable arms of Government its well-defined, distinctive roles and responsibilities. To the Legislature, the primary role of enacting laws for the peace, order and good governance of the nation; to the Executive, the eminent responsibility and duty for the formulation, execution and implementation of all laws and policies of the government; whilst to the Judiciary, the Constitution has equally assigned the prestigious and most honourable judicial powers to thereby arbitrate and settle disputes vis-à-vis conflicts arising from the interplay of powers and forces between the Federal and State Governments, between the Government and the citizen and between individuals and institutions vis-à-vis other feuding parties. For further emphasis, please see Sections 4, 5, and 6 of the 1999 Constitution and the judicial authority of APC & ORS v. ENUGU STATE INDEPENDENT ELECTORAL COMMISSION & ORS. (2021) LPELR-55337(SC) @ 65, Paras A-F.

After all, the perceived and apparent epistemology of the judiciary can be seen when the Courts are viewed as arenas for societal change, which comes with many questions and daunting challenges as to ultimately determine whether the courtroom constitutes the right place for bringing desired and sought-for societal change(s). The Judiciary, which consists of the Court itself, Judges and the ministers at the Bar, serves as the hope and last haven of a common man. The significance and prominence of the judicial arm of government can be said to have been overly begun right from the era of independence. As of today, the Supreme Court has determined over 5,000 (Five Thousand) cases, in which 438 appeals, comprising 246 Civil and 192 Criminal matters were considered in just one legal year. This is an impressive report considering the persistent and ever-increasing volume of the cases that continue to come before the Apex Court. This record is more at the Court of Appeal and it balloons when it gets to the High Court. In point of fact, the Court of Appeal has 20 (Twenty) Divisions spread across the 6 (Six) geopolitical zones in the country, it has treated nothing less than a triple fold of cases than that of the Supreme Court. And the various State High Courts have since inception of the democratic system of government adjudicated upon hundreds of thousands of cases, not mentioning the Magistrate’s Courts and the Customary Courts. Then we have the Federal High Court, the National Industrial Court and other specialized courts established for the adjudication of disputes.


The judiciary as the guardian of the democratic state, is often and appropriately described as the ordinary man’s final hope, which presupposes that it guarantees equal access to justice and equity; and equally ensures that the rights of citizens are adequately ventilated, and judgments handed down in accordance with the dictates of the law and facts presented to the court. Without a doubt, justice is the fulcrum of social engineering, development, transformation and harmonious existence in society. Justice is the first virtue of social institutions that produces democratic changes. The judiciary can thus act and remain as the last hope of the common man where it is independent, well-funded, courageous, unbiased and proactive in adjudicating on matters before it. The judiciary plays a fundamental role in sustainable national development and maintaining democracy. By efficiently resolving disputes and upholding civil rights and the rule of law, it creates a stable environment that is indispensable to economic development and social cohesion. Justice must be rooted in confidence and that confidence is destroyed when right-thinking people doubt the neutrality of the judge. See the famous case of Abiola v Federal Republic of Nigeria (1995) 7 NWLR (Pt.405) 2. To achieve this, the judiciary must be above board.
The Nigerian Constitution prohibits the legislature from passing any law “that ousts or purports to oust the jurisdiction of a court of law or of a judicial tribunal established by law,” which is another indication of how highly valued the judiciary is. This prohibition is found in Section 4(8) of the Constitution. The judiciary has always been regarded with respect and great honour. In times gone by, a judge was viewed with some mystique, and the nation often felt proud to celebrate the names of its Justices like Samuel Olumuyiwa Jibowu, Sir Adetokunbo Ademola, Nageon de Lestang, Sir Vahe Bairamian, Mamman Nasir (the Galadiman Katsina), Muhammed Uwais, Nikki Tobi, Ayo Salami, Late Kayode Esho, and indeed the Honourable Justice Mustapha Akanbi, Late Prince Bolasodun Adesumbo Bola Ajibola, to name but a few great jurists living and gone. The profession of law, vis-à-vis the judiciary, was one that operated discreetly, worked diligently, and overachieved despite being the least funded arm of government. It bred men of worth, without whom the fabric of society may indeed have been torn and in tatters.

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