A recent ruling by a Federal High Court in the case filed by the Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, against the national leadership of the All Progressives Congress may have further exposed how the judiciary promotes impunity, Davidson Iriekpen writes
Penultimate week, Justice P. I. Ajoku of the Federal High Court, Ibadan, Oyo State, delivered a judgment that many analysts considered a dent on the quest to curb impunity in the country. The judgment, which could have served as deterrence to those, who deliberately or ignorantly avoid undergoing the mandatory one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) scheme was quietly ignored by the court.
The case was in respect of a suit filed by the Minister of Communications, Adebayo Shittu, against the national leadership of the All Progressives Congress (APC) for disqualifying him from contesting the governorship primary in Oyo State.
Shittu studied law at the Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU) and graduated in 1978. Upon his graduation from the Nigerian Law School, Lagos in 1979, rather than participate in the one-year mandatory national service, he immediately joined politics and was elected a member of the Oyo State House of Assembly.
Reacting to why he did not participate in the scheme when the scandal broke, the minister was quoted as saying he did not need to participate in the one-year mandatory scheme because his election as a lawmaker had compensated for it, claiming also that he has a court ruling to that effect.
He said: “The constitution provides for the qualification needed for state assembly members, NYSC is not there. I didn’t need it to become a member of the state assembly, and that is already a service.”
When it was time for APC governorship primaries, Shittu indicated interest. But his party disqualified him on the grounds that he did not participate in the NYSC scheme. This angered the minister, who immediately proceeded to the Federal High Court in Ibadan to seek redress. He claimed that the national leadership of the APC omitted his name in the list of its gubernatorial aspirants for the primaries, because he did not participate in the NYSC scheme.
His counsel, Abdulhakeem Mustafa (SAN), who knows that failure to participate in the one-year mandatory service contravenes the law, among all other things, argued that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria required anyone seeking to be a state governor to possess a maximum of Senior Secondary School Certificate and not necessarily an NYSC certificate.
NYSC was set up in 1973. It is a one-year compulsory scheme for all Nigerians youths, who graduate from universities or equivalent institutions at less than 30 years of age. In addition to being a requirement for government and private sector jobs in the country, the enabling law prescribes punishment for anyone, who refuses to participate in the scheme or forges its certificates.
Eligible Nigerians, who skipped the service are liable to be sentenced to 12 months imprisonment and/or N2,000 fine, according to Section 13 of the NYSC Act. Section 13 (3) of the law also prescribes three-year jail term or option of N5,000 fine for anyone who contravenes provision of the law.
At the peak of the controversy, spokesperson of the NYSC, Adenike Adeyemi, faulted the minister’s claim. She said the provisions of the Act were very clear, and that there are no exceptions for Shittu, who became a lawmaker at the age of 26.
Adeyemi insisted that the NYSC law gives no preferential treatment to Nigerians other than those exempted by Section 2 of the Act.
She said, “Serving in the national (or state) assembly is not one of them (conditions for exemption from national service). You have read the Act and you can see the circumstances where someone is exempted, you analyse it if he (Shittu) was exempted duly or there is a reason why he should have served. But the Act is very straightforward on the grounds for not coming up to serve.
“If you are a graduate locally trained or foreign trained, as long as you graduate before the age of 30, you are expected to serve. Whether foreign or locally trained, the law is the same. Our youths should be rightly guided that if you were able to complete your studies and as of the date of graduation, you are under 30, you are eligible to serve.
“The NYSC was set up to mobilise all eligible Nigerian youths. The Act does not talk about VIPs or children of VIPs. Anyone who is a Nigerian youth, who has a first degree and under the age of 30 must serve, the issue of VIPs or their children does not apply.
“However, if there is any reason why a corps member needs a concession, the corps member applies and concession is given, for example, for marital reasons and on health grounds. Everyone is treated the same and where concessions are to be given, it is treated. So, VIPs or children of VIPs do not come into the Act and we do not look at that.”
But in spite of this, in her ruling, Justice Ajoku struck out the case. The judge, ignoring the main reason for the suit, said the plaintiff did not comply with Section 285(9) of the Constitution when he failed to file the case within 14 days. She noted that the plaintiff in his originating summons had confirmed that he is a card-carrying member of the APC, which gives him the opportunity to contest the governorship primary of the party in September last year.
The court explained further that Shittu had also declared that he only read about his disqualification as a result of his failure to perform the one year mandatory NYSC on the pages of newspapers on September 28, 2018.
The ruling did not go down well with a cross section of Nigerians, who thought the judge should have invoked the inherent powers of the court to direct the Attorney General of the Federation and other relevant agencies to investigate and prosecute the minister knowing that it is an offence not to participate in the scheme. They wondered why the judge would feign ignorance to what led to the suit in the first place?
When the case is placed side by side with the judgment of the Plateau State High Court sitting in Jos, which recently sacked a state lawmaker, Mr. Ibrahim Baba-Hassan, for certificate forgery, many observers see the verdict of Justice Ajoku as not only a miscarriage of justice, but a demonstration of incapacity and indiscretion titled towards encouraging impunity.
In the substantive case, a Plateau State lawmaker, Abdu Sale, had filed a suit at the state High Court against Baba-Hassan. Sale told the court that the Diploma certificate in Business Administration allegedly obtained by Baba-Hassan from University of Jos, and presented to INEC for the 2015 election, was forged.
After examining the case and evidence put before him, Justice Musa Kurya, while delivering his judgment, held that Baba-Hassan was not in the first place qualified to contest the 2015 APC House Assembly primaries Jos North-North constituency of the state. He found the evidence of the Registrar of the university to be uncontroverted.
The judge said he also found that Diploma certificate paraded by Baba-Hassan which he presented to INEC in 2011 and 2015 was forged, which was why he (lawmaker) conspicuously expunged it from the 2019 form he submitted to INEC.
While sacking the lawmaker from the state assembly, the judge ordered the Department of State Services (DSS), Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC) and other law enforcement agencies to take note of his judgment, which found the lawmaker guilty of forgery and to act appropriately.
Kurya was consequently granted all the reliefs sought by Saleh and made a consequential order directing Baba-Hassan to return all the salaries, entitlements and emoluments received by him and ordered that N2 million be paid as costs to the plaintiff.
For a country that has been ravaged by corruption and impunity, many analysts are not happy with the ruling in the Shittu’s case, describing it as ridiculous and a slap on the wrist. They argued that though the case before the court was not a criminal charge, the judge has the power to invoke the inherent powers of the court or use his discretion to order security and law enforcement agencies to investigate and possibly prosecute the minister.
This, they argued, would send a clear message to public officers that impunity has no dwelling place in the country. To them, the verdict by Justice Ajoku shows how the judiciary uses indiscretion to encourage people to commit crime and perpetuate impunity in the country.
This is why the feeling in some quarters is that the inability of government and its institutions especially the courts to deal decisively with the impunity by public officers usually sends a wrong signal to the public that they are not punishable.
A public affairs analyst, Samson Edegbai, said the general incapacity of the judiciary to deal with impunity is the reason the malaise is on the rise in the country. He called on the judges to be firm in order to overcome impunity in the country. Edegbai argued that when judges begin to use their inherent powers to put people in check, it would help to curb impunity in the country. He said impunity was becoming an embarrassment to the country and must be tackled collectively.
“One problem the judges have is that they tend to either look away or feign ignorance when there is a problem. They behave as if they are not part of the society. All the problems we have in the country also affect them. So, rather than put their feet down to deal with these problems when they have the opportunity, the play to the gallery.”
On his part, a Lagos-based lawyer, Ademola Kolawole, described Nigeria as a country of jokers, saying until influential persons such as ex-governors, ministers, managing directors of banks and senior civil servants are put in prison for various offences, the country would never develop.
“I have always known that Nigeria is a country of jokers. People who should have been locked away are the ones ruling us. How many former governors, ministers, bank MDs have you seen in jail in this country? Until this happens, nobody will sit up.”