NOW the US Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I disagree with the court’s decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome … I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country … This is America. Just as we fight hard when the stakes are high, we close ranks and come together when the contest is done.
-Former Vice President Al Gore, in his concession speech, following the Supreme Court’s decision to stop the manual recount of votes in selected counties in the state of Florida during the 2000 presidential election.
AS I reflected on the Supreme Court judgements on the Imo and Bayelsa governorship election cases and the reactions of major actors in the Peoples Democratic Party and the All Progressives Congress to the judgements, my mind went straight to the impact of the absurdist actions of the political class and the judiciary on Nigeria’s ailing democracy.
The repeated assaults on the country’s democracy by politicians and judges since its rebirth in 1999 cannot but invoke the punishment meted on Sisyphus by the gods for his mischievous exploits. Sisyphus was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. No wonder then that Albert Camus saw in the plight of Sisyphus a vehicle for explaining the futility of our existence in a world devoid of truths and values.
The plight of mischievous Sisyphus is analogous to the behaviours of politicians and judges in the Nigerian political sphere in which failure and futility are pervasive, endemic, and enduring across all institutions, as I observed over ten years ago (see Nigerian politicians, Ekiti, and the Myth of Sisyphus, The Punch, May 7, 2009). With judges and politicians behaving badly in the recent Imo and Bayelsa governorship cases, it is clear that the situation has worsened rather than abated.
There was no extent the aggrieved politicians did not go to signal their disagreement with the judgement of the Supreme Court. Although the Supreme Court judgements in both cases appear to be justified in the eyes of the law, the optics are bad in the perception of the partisan public. The readiness of the Court to review the cases is viewed as admission of culpability, thus aggravating the bad optics.
Observing that there is nothing final in the Supreme Court’s judgement after all, the Peoples Democratic Party quickly mocked the Court, by requesting a review of its earlier decision on the presidential election and other previous cases unfavourable to the party.
It is all too easy to dismiss the American example in the opening quote. After all, the Americans have been at it for over two centuries. But then, Al Gore delved into history for precedents: “Almost a century and a half ago”, he said in 2000, “Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you’.”
Gore did not agree with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision against him, but he accepted it and offered to assist Bush, who won the Electoral College by only 5 votes, while Gore won the popular votes by 543,895 votes! Poor Gore accepted the nature of their electoral system and the finality of the Supreme Court judgement.
Unfortunately, in our case, neither the electoral system nor the Supreme Court judgement is viewed as beyond reproach. The critical question to ask is: What is it in the nature of our political culture and judicial system that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to do the right thing and behave appropriately?
To start with, political parties do not exist in Nigeria in the form in which they are supposed to operate in a democracy. Rather than provide an ideological base for shared views about the role of government in a democracy, Nigerian political parties exist only as vehicles for grabbing power. As such, the door is wide open for those who can afford it to purchase power as we have witnessed in election after election.
As a result, Nigerian political parties fail repeatedly to perform one of their crucial functions, namely, to provide strong pillars upon which to build our democracy, by successfully screening candidates for elective and appointive offices. This failure is evident in the Bayelsa case, where an otherwise unqualified candidate, whose name changed with every certificate he tendered, was chosen as the Deputy Governor. Given the burden on political parties to nominate candidates for election, it was the political party that lost in the Bayelsa case. The failure of political parties to function as the guardrail of democracy in this respect cannot but open the door for the courts to intervene.
According to the Independent National Electoral Commission, the courts intervened in over 1,600 cases, following the 2019 general elections alone, including the Imo, Bayelsa, and Zamfara cases under discussion. In addition to putting undue burden on the courts, the unprecedented number of cases opened a floodgate of abuse, thereby creating room for further weakening the judiciary.
Another critical factor that has shaped Nigeria’s political culture is corruption, which is as pervasive in the electoral and judicial systems as it is in the wider society. This is so because there really is no system of value anymore to provide a reference point for behaviour. In a society where the educational, economic, political, and infrastructural systems have virtually collapsed, it has become everyone onto himself or herself.
The lack of adequate power supply and the attendant collapse of industries and manufacturing plants have led to high unemployment, leaving politics as the only lucrative job in town. In seizing the opportunity, Nigerian politicians are prepared to throw caution to the winds in the quest for power. This explains why they often blow their tops whenever they lose at the polls or in court.
What they often forget is that they are destroying not only the democratic institutions they are supposed to nurture, protect, and preserve, but also the judicial system they scandalize now and again. At the same time, lawyers and judges have a crucial role to play in upholding the rule of law rather than the lure of money. That’s the only way to preserve the sanctity and finality of Supreme Court judgements.