Two faces of justice
By Levi Obijiofor
Writing for Guardian Newspapers
In President Olusegun Obasanjo's personal diary, certain historic events that occurred last week would have been entered in bold letters while some would have been scripted in tiny, almost illegible ink. Obasanjo must be wondering whether Christmas had come rather early to Aso Rock. Never since his ascension to the presidential mantle in 1999 had good news been delivered to Obasanjo in quick succession from home and abroad.
First was news that the Paris Club of Creditors had decided to "forgive" or "pardon" some part of Nigeria's external debt worth a whopping $18 billion. The concept of "forgiveness" or "pardon" is misleading because it suggests that Nigeria, like other African countries that are strangled by foreign loans, committed a sin by taking loans from western industrialised countries and now that the debt has been reduced, it would appear that our original cardinal sin has been atoned.
Obasanjo was still rolling with joy on the golden carpets in Aso Rock when, behold, 48 hours later came news of equal magnitude. The Supreme Court ruled emphatically on Friday, July 1 that Obasanjo's re-election in 2003 was valid despite claims by the appellant, Muhammadu Buhari, that the election was marred by irregularities and bare-faced malpractices. By its ruling, the Supreme Court proved again that there are two courts that are accessible to aggrieved persons in the land - the court of law and the court of public opinion.
In the court of law, Obasanjo was declared the victor because the justices of the Supreme Court believed that Buhari did not present them with evidence solid enough to persuade them to overturn Obasanjo's re-election. In fact, the justices implied that Buhari came to the Supreme Court with the equivalent of "Ghana-must-go" bags filled with "hearsays" which in legal language do not amount to evidence.
In any law court, evidence is a veritable weapon with which cases are won or lost. In this case Buhari lost because he could not convert hearsays into concrete evidence. Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruled that Buhari could not prove that non-compliance with aspects of the electoral act was of such scale that such non-compliance would have affected the overall outcome of the election.
That Supreme Court judgment was based on the fine points of law. Chief Justice Muhammadu Uwais, who read the judgment, said the position of the court rested on section 135 (1) of the Electoral Act, which states "That an election shall not be invalidated by reason of non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, if it appears that the election was conducted substantially in accordance with the principles of the Electoral Act and that the non-compliance did not affect substantially the result of the election."
Technically, the Supreme Court judgment leaves Buhari with nowhere else to go but to return to the second available court - the court of public opinion. In the court of public opinion, hearsays win cases. This is because there are no rules and no legal representation. Everyone - layperson or professional - is qualified to be an arm-chair judge. In that court, appellants only need to whip up emotion and sympathy in order to turn public opinion in their favour. It was these elements that Buhari evoked to portray himself as the victim of an election in which the winner was almost pre-determined even before the polling date. There are many reasons why Buhari's allegations sounded credible in the court of public opinion. Members of this court voted in the 2003 election. In this context, they could relate easily to various forms of electoral malpractices that took place on the polling day.
The court of public opinion has little patience for judicial arguments or technicalities. Interminable adjournments are not a feature of the court of public opinion, as is common in the court of law. The court of public opinion operates through moral suasion and that is all. No one in the court wants to be embroiled in endless legal rigmarole about admissible or inadmissible evidence, credible or incredible witnesses and all that jazz. Judgment in the court of public opinion is instant; sometimes decisions made by this court are ready made and baffling; they have no legal foundation and this raises questions about the fairness of the system and its ad hoc nature.
Right from 2003, the court of public opinion backed Buhari's claims that the election laws were weighted in favour of the incumbent (Obasanjo) and that Buhari, as challenger, lost simply because neither he nor his party could match the PDP foot soldiers who swayed many voters with financial and other incentives. This is not surprising. There is a bring-them-down culture or syndrome that operates in the court of public opinion.
Outstanding people, including high profile government officials, are seen as emblematic of evil and their downfall should be celebrated rather than mourned. This feeling feeds the sentiment that high ranking people in society such as politicians, government bureaucrats and leaders of political parties are evil machines always willing and able to do anything to sustain themselves and/or their parties in power. Against this background, public opinion did not require Buhari to provide any evidence of how the election process was used to out-muscle him.
The moment Buhari travelled round the country to narrate his election tales of woe, the public grabbed his version and ran with it. Obasanjo and the PDP were perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the mischief makers. The rest is history. Most people believed Buhari the moment he started crying and pointing in a particular direction, in the manner of a baby whose ice cream cone had been snatched by a bully. It is in this context that one could understand how and why public opinion cast Buhari as the unofficial winner of the 2003 contentious presidential election.
The court of public opinion is usually the court of last resort to people who lost out in the court of law and still believe the legal system had not been fair to their cause. The problem is that the court of public opinion lacks legitimacy of any kind. Its judgments are unenforceable. Worse still, the court is amorphous in shape, form and structure. The court can listen to your case but it does not have the power to remedy the situation or award damages to the appellant. For example, Buhari may have won in the court of public opinion but the judges in that court are powerless because they can't actually swear him in; in fact, the judges in the court of public opinion can't provide Buhari with the official keys which he needs to access the Aso Rock mansion.
There is another example in our recent history. In 1993, Moshood Abiola was widely acclaimed to be the unofficial winner of the presidential election. Ibrahim Babangida and his alter ego Sani Abacha disagreed with the rest of the nation. Babangida and Abacha used their military power in a most primitive manner to effectively block the actualisation of the public opinion in regard to the outcome of that election.
It all goes to show that life really is powered by two faces of justice - justice delivered in the law court and justice as interpreted by the court of public opinion. One is more endearing. The other is ephemeral. One highlights legal rules that bind a society together and contributes to an organised, orderly society. The other represents an unofficial channel for public expression of views that are more popular with the common people.