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Between Kabila and Onnonghen: Africa’s judiciary needs help!


With courts increasingly calling polls, is a new electoral order being cemented?

By Richard Mammah

The judiciary is the last hope of the common man is a trite expression you will hear now and again in Nigeria. But that institution is increasingly now also becoming the first point of interest for affluent power-mongers. And this is even to the troubling extent that, in some cases, courts are seemingly increasingly becoming more important than voters in the shifting electoral dynamics within the African continent today.

.In Nigeria at the moment, a move to try Supreme Court Chief Justice Walter Onnonghen on alleged assets declaration violations is being very loudly interpreted as an attempt to take him out and pave the way for a more pliant successor that will help the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC in the event of widely anticipated post-election contentions that will get to the Supreme Court.

While the government and the ruling party are swearing that the trial is only a regular part of its ‘anti-Corruption agenda,’ the fact of its taking place within a month of the polls, the circumventing of what critics say is a statutory provision that such matters be first determined by the nation’s National Judicial Council, NJC and the relative speed with which it is being handled belie the fact that there may indeed be more politics than law involved in the move.

It is a near-similar mode in which the current political stalemate in the Democratic Republic of Congo is held. In that instance, the stuffing of the nation’s 9-member Constitutional Court in April/May last year with pro-Kabila loyalists was first interpreted as a ploy to get critical support at that apex level for the outgoing President’s tenure elongation gambit. When the Catholic Church, the AU and the rest of the international community kicked, Kabila announced election dates and began plans to install a crony.

When the elections were finally held in December and the verdict from the streets showed a thorough rejection of his crony, Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary, Kabila now swung into a seeming last-ditch ‘punish my foes’ mood. He adopted one of the opposition candidates, Felix Tsikeshedi as a lesser of two evils and the pliant president of the Congolese Electoral Commission, Corneille Nganga formally declared him as winner. Expectedly, the results have been rejected by the more probable winner, Martin Fayulu, who has presently challenged it at the Constitutional Court.

Now ahead of the expected ruling of the court, post-election tension in the country and region is yet to abate. And understandably so. Can any good thing come out of Kabila’s courts? This is why regional groups like the Southern African Development Commission, SADC and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Area are asking for a less controversial recourse to the option of a manual recount of the ballots at the moment.

Indeed, the intervention of apex courts in determining the winners of contentious elections in the continent is something that should be very closely examined. In the 1979 polls in Nigeria, the courts were invited to adjudicate between Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Chief Obafemi Awolowo. In Nigeria’s current democratic dispensation, former governors like Adams Oshiomhole and Rauf Aregbesola had benefited from court interventions.

Presidential elections in many other nations in the continent have also witnessed spirited contests at the apex courts level. From Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa through Zambia’s Edgar Lungu to Gabon’s Ali Bongo, court verdicts are increasingly being used to call winners of electoral contests.

While in some cases, the public sees these interventions as that of the proverbial ‘Daniel coming to judgement,’ in many others, these are essentially viewed as Pyrrhic affirmations to save the political careers of misbegotten dictators that had been openly rejected and disgraced by their own people.

In these instances then, the questions being raised go on to include what such interventions portend for the nation, the faith of the people in the democratic project and even the legal profession in itself.

Clearly Africa’s judiciary needs all the help it can get at the moment and one safe place to begin would be to take up the elementary challenge of answering the foundational question about why the legal profession came into being in the first place and then insisting on returning to uphold the time-tested values of a progressive bar and bench at all times.

Nigeria’s Chief Justice, Walter Onnonghen

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