How Nigeria’s Courts Became “The Lost Hope of the Common Man”

How Nigeria’s Courts Became “The Lost Hope of the Common Man”

By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

Opinion: When Ogbonnaya Ukeje died in Lagos two days after Christmas Day in 1981, Bode Rhodes-Vivour was a 30 year-old lawyer making his way up the rungs of public service in the Ministry of Justice in Lagos State. Mr. Rhodes-Vivour had been called to the Nigerian Bar a mere six years earlier, in 1975.

In 1989, when Mr. Rhode-Vivour succeeded Nureini Abiodun Kessington as the Director of Public Prosecutions in Lagos State, the case concerning the estate of Ogbonnaya Ukeje was already in its sixth year in the High Court of Lagos. Mr. Ukeje’s daughter, Glady’s, had filed the case in 1983 to challenge her exclusion from a share in her father’s estate merely on the ground that she was female.

In January 1992, Justice Moni Fafiade, who became a judge of the Lagos High Court in 1983, the same year the case originated, delivered judgment in Gladys Ukeje’s case. The case lasted nine years in the High Court alone. Bode Rhodes-Vivour was still a Director in the Lagos State Ministry of Justice.

Two years later, in 1994, when Bode Rhodes-Vivour was appointed a judge of the High Court of Lagos, the appeal by Gladys Ukeje’s family against the decision of the High Court of Lagos in her favour had been pending in the Court of Appeal for two years.

In 2005, five years after the first brief of argument was filed in the Supreme Court Appeal in Gladys Ukeje’s case, Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour was elevated from the High Court of Lagos to the Court of Appeal. By the following year, in 2006, all the parties had filed their briefs of argument.

Four years later, when Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour arrived the Supreme Court, after a five year sojourn on the bench of the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court appeal in Gladys Ukeje’s case had been pending for over a decade.

On 11 April 2014, 31 years after the case was filed in the High Court of Lagos, 20 years after he was first appointed a judge, and four years after his elevation to the court, Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour delivered the judgment of the Supreme Court upholding the right of Gladys Ukeje to a share in her father’s estate.

By this time in 2014, Ahmed Lawan was already something of a phenomenon in Nigerian politics. In 1999, Lawan arrived the National Assembly as the member representing the proud people of Bade/Jakusko constituency of Yobe State in the House of Representatives. He was a member of the All Nigerian Peoples’ Party (ANPP). In 2007, after two terms in the House, Lawan was elected to the Senate by the people of Yobe North Senatorial Zone. In 2019, 20 years after his arrival at the National Assembly and having logged the record for the most durable parliamentary career in Nigeria’s history, Ahmed Lawan became the 14th president of Nigeria’s Senate.

In this capacity, Ahmed Lawan was officially, the third most powerful man in the country. If he desired to extend the duration of his improbable political longevity, Lawan had few realistic options. As the 2023 election season approached, he made his bid for a ticket to the presidency on the platform of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), of which he was a founding member. When the final tally was announced on 8 June 2022, Lawan lost out in the contest, coming a distant fourth.

11 days earlier, on 28 May, the APC had organized the primaries for the Senate. In Yobe North, the seat that Lawan occupied in the Senate, the winner of the primaries was Bashir Machina, a rich businessman and politician, who had also served in the cabinet at the state level. However, as soon as the presidential primaries concluded, a concerted effort began to deny Machina the ticket in favour of Lawan.

To forestall this, Machina sued on 22 June 2022 in the Federal High Court in Damaturu, the capital of Yobe State, asking the court to affirm the outcome of the senatorial primaries that he won. Three months later, on 28 September, the High Court rendered judgment. By the beginning of December, the Court of Appeal had also issued judgment, and on World Anti-Corruption Day, 9 December, 2022, the case arrived the Supreme Court. In less than two months, on 6 February 2022, the Supreme Court issued judgment, implausibly declaring Lawan the winner of senatorial primaries that he did not participate in.

This kind of status-indexed shunt granted to political higher-ups like Ahmed Lawan by Nigerian courts is mostly manufactured or enabled by the judiciary. It is now crippling Nigeria’s courts and the irony is that the only people in the position to end it are the ones complaining.

When he inaugurated a cohort of 72 new Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SANs) on 8 December 2021, then Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammad, reported that 33 or nearly five per cent of the 681 cases considered by the Nigerian Supreme Court during the year were “political cases”. This was a rather a curious category to maintain or report on. Judicial doctrine ordinarily views political cases with reluctance. Nigerian law knows nothing of the sort. It knows of election petitions as are contests over the outcomes of elections, mostly governed by the Electoral Act, which prescribes strict time limits for their disposal. Most likely, this is a category of cases instituted by Nigeria’s politicians seeking to judicialize intra-party squabbles over the spoils of political plunder. Increasingly, it seems, these have become the mainstay of judicial enterprise in the country.

Last week, as he swore-in nine newly appointed Justices of the Court of Appeal, current CJN, Olukayode Ariwoola, reinforced the complaint from the judges that “political cases are taking a monumental toll on our dockets.”

Gladys Ukeje and Ahmed Lawan are both Nigerians. One is female, the other is male. The former is from the south, while the latter is from the north. They both journeyed memorably through Nigeria’s courts, ending up in the Supreme Court with remarkably different experiences. For Gladys, the journey began in Lagos; for Lawan, it began in Damaturu, Yobe State. For Gladys, the journey from the High Court to the Supreme Court took over three decades. For Ahmed Lawan, it was less than eight months.

By assigning priority to “political cases” in a manner that grants swift access to courts for politicians like Ahmed Lawan but no exit from courts to ordinary citizens like Gladys Ukeje, Nigeria’s judiciary sustains a two-track judicial system by which it puts the interests of politicians above those of the citizens whom they are meant to serve. It also encourages the twin evils of undue judicialisation of politics and the politicization of the judiciary. It is little wonder that some have resorted to describing Nigeria’s courts as the “lost hope of the common man”.

By consecrating an Ahmed Lawan into an indispensable citizen while at the same time making a Gladys Ukeje into the expendable citizen, Nigeria’s judges have turned citizens into manure to feed the whims of politicians as a matter of law.

This juxtaposition is everything that is wrong not merely with Nigeria’s courts but with the country and its governance. The country has been judicially rendered in hock to big men. When courts become captured for the purpose exclusively of enabling the whims of big men, they lose the authority of judicial office.

The solution to this is in plain sight. If Nigeria’s judges were to insist on politicians taking their place on the queue of judicial dysfunction, like every other citizen, they will be forced to either find a way to fix the judiciary or else fix their internal party dysfunctions and spare the judiciary from being captured by and for “political cases”.

A lawyer and a teacher, Odinkalu can be reached at

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