The leadership of the The Nigerian Bar Association has, in a commendable move, come out to speak against the deafening silence of the executive arm of government over the invasion of the Abuja residence of Honourable Justice Mary Peter-Odili, Justice of the Supreme Court, on Friday, 14 and Tuesday, 18 February 2020 by a mob protesting the judgment of the Supreme Court in the “Bayelsa Judgment”. The statement issued on the 24th day of February 2020 reads in full:
24 February 2020
DEBASEMENT OF THE RULE OF LAW: INVASION OF THE ABUJA RESIDENCE OF HONORABLE JUSTICE MARY PETER-ODILI, JSC
The Nigerian Bar Association (“NBA”) has not seen nor read any official statement from the Executive Branch of the Federal Government of Nigeria (“FGN”) on the egregious invasion of the Abuja residence of Honorable Justice Mary PeterOdili, Justice of the Supreme Court, on Friday, 14 and Tuesday, 18 February 2020 by an unruly and obviously hired mob carrying placards ostensibly protesting the judgment of the Supreme Court that was delivered on Thursday, 13 February 2020 in Appeal No. SC.1/2020: Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) & 2 others v Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo & 3 others (“Bayelsa Appeal” or “Bayelsa Judgment”). If the Executive Branch of the FGN has made any comment on it, its statement must have been so muffled and muted that it was entirely inaudible.
And that is most unfortunate. For those who are not familiar with the facts, a Panel of 5 (five) Supreme Court Justices had, on Thursday, 13 February 2020, entered unanimous judgment for the Appellants – i.e. PDP and two others – in the Bayelsa Appeal which resulted in the swearing-in of the PDP candidate as the Governor of Bayelsa State on Friday, 14 February 2020. Honourable Justice Mary Peter-Odili, as the most senior Justice of the Supreme Court in the Panel, presided over the hearing and determination of that Appeal.
On Friday, 14 February 2020, the day following the Supreme Court Judgment, a motley crowd of protesters gathered in front of Peter-Odili JSC’s Abuja residence. That initial crowd dispersed on same day after a while but resurged, this time, much larger and more threatening on Tuesday, 18 February 2020.
That incident is nothing but an attempt to intimidate not only Peter-Odili JSC but the entire Nigerian judiciary. It amounts to a statement by the paymasters of the mob that they are prepared and able to move violently against any judicial officer or a panel of judicial officers who enter judgment in any matter against their perceived interest. It is a further step towards the complete dismantling of the independence of our judiciary. They, the paymasters of the mob, are serving notice on all judicial officers that they, the judicial officers, must, at all times second-guess the wishes of the mob paymasters and tailor their judgments, rulings and decisions in conformance thereto, failing which, there may be disastrous consequences including but not limited to organized mob actions.
It is truly disheartening that we have descended this low. It beggars belief that we have descended to such level of anomie that disgruntled and disaffected persons could organize a mob to descend on a judicial officer at his or her residence because of a judgment that was delivered and was perceived to be unfavorable to the organizers and promoters of the mob. Even more disconcerting is the silence of the Executive Branch of the FGN. We single out the Executive Branch because it is the Executive Branch of the FGN that directly controls all the security and intelligence agencies of the land and has the coercive competence to fish out not only the members of that mob that descended on Peter-Odili JSC’s residence but more importantly their paymasters. When the Executive Branch keeps mum over such grave infraction and blatant debasement of our judicial institution, it gives us cause for concern. Worse, it gives the, possibly, unintended impression of complicity by powerful men in authority.
To be clear, the attack on Peter-Odili, JSC is a collective attack on all of us and a flagrant erosion of the Rule of Law. This is a road that leads to anarchy and a complete system collapse. In any judicial decision, there must be winners and losers. To comprehend the abyss to which we are descending, it is worth reflecting on where we would all end up if all losers in judicial decisions were, henceforth, to rent their respective crowds with threatening posters and descend on the residences of the “culpable” judicial officers. What would become of our justice system let alone our governance system and social contract? Why do some amongst others believe that we are best served with intimidated and cowed judicial officers who must be concerned about mob attack while writing their judgments? That ill-wind, serves no one any good.
The Rule of Law, we must remember, is there to serve and protect all of us. Without it, we are all endangered and life would be totally reduced to the animal kingdom where might is right and life is short and brutish. A critical component of that Rule of Law is the independence of thought of the judicial officers which must not be tampered with howsoever. Our judicial officers must be allowed their freedom of thoughts and opinion in the determination of cases and appeals before them. They must not be subjected to any form of intimidation or embarrassment. 6. The Executive Branch of the FGN owes us a duty to protect the independence of our judiciary and prevent the erosion of the Rule of Law. The starting point as it relates to the Peter-Odili JSC’s incident would be an unequivocal statement from the FGN condemning, in strong terms, the invasion of His Lordship’s residence by the mob. Beyond that, the security agencies must fish out and bring to justice the members of that mob that invaded Peter-Odili JSC’s Abuja residence and their paymasters.
We need the Executive Branch to restore the confidence of Nigerians in our collective commitment to the protection and promotion of the Rule of Law and its critical component, to wit, the independence of thought of our judicial officers.
Our people need to be reminded that there are legal remedies for all situations, including Supreme Court decisions which, some may not be aware, are subject to review in prescribed exceptional circumstances. We must also learn to accept court verdicts even when they do not favor us. In political matters, where the contests are fiercest, we must accept that there is always another day for the resumption of the contest and that it must not be viewed as or reduced to a zero sum or fight-to-finish situation.
And just before concluding, the mob and their paymasters need to know that the Presiding Justice of any Panel, be it the Supreme Court or Court of Appeal Panel, has no coercive power over the other members of the panel. He or she is only the first amongst equals and, as in the Bayelsa Judgment, she may not even be the one who reads the lead judgment of the Court. The Justices in the Panel are all independent-minded jurists who enter judgment according to how they individually see and understand the case or appeal, based on the facts before them, guided only by the need to dispense justice to all men without fear or favor.
It is futile and indeed irresponsible to attack the Presiding Justice of the Panel or indeed any Justice on account of the decision of the Court. That is an unwarranted attack on the independence of the judiciary and amounts to the imprisonment of the Rule of Law. The NBA calls on the FGN to speak up on this despicable incident and to unmask the members of the mob that invaded the Abuja home of Honorable Justice Mary Peter-Odili, JSC and their paymasters/promoters.
Paul Usoro, SAN