SO, the Supreme Court can reconsider an earlier decision in the face of a more compelling evidence? That was the question that concentrated many minds on Friday when the news broke that Nigeria’s apex court had reversed its earlier dismissal of an appeal by GTBank against a N2.4 billion judgement given in favour of Innoson Motors Nigeria Limited by the Court of Appeal in Ibadan, Oyo State.
Eyebrows were raised for a good reason. On January 14, 2020, a seven-member panel of the Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Tanko Muhammad unanimously annulled the election of Governor Emeka Ihedioha in the March 9, 2019 governorship election and handed Hope Uzodimma victory on a platter of controversy. It was a judgement that confounded the entire nation. Uzodimma, candidate of the All Progressives Congress, APC, polled a paltry 96,458 votes in an election 70 candidates representing various political parties took part, to come a distant fourth. Ihedioha polled 273,404 in the same election and was dutifully declared winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
Two years after, many are still scratching their heads, trying to come to terms with the verdict. Nigerians agreed that the Justices are human, after all, and, therefore, fallible. That being the case, it was agreed that if their error was pointed out to them, they would retrace their steps and mitigate what had already become an open sore on the country’s jurisprudence. So, going back to seek a reversal of the befuddling judgement was an attempt to save the Supreme Court from ridicule.
And who else was hired to do the job other than the respected Chief Kanu Agabi, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, former Senator, Attorney General and Minister of Justice. Agabi’s appeal was straightforward: The Supreme Court erred on many fronts by allowing Uzodimma to wheedle the unwary Justices with his self-tabulated results from 388 polling units. Agabi insisted that based on the spurious results disingenuously produced by Uzodimma and curiously accepted by the Court, the number of voters in the Imo governorship election outnumbered the accredited voters, a situation that would ordinarily invalidate an election. Based on that, he contended that the court was misled into giving the judgement and insisted that it was better to correct the error by reviewing the judgement than retaining it for the future.
The Justices knew they were cornered. The whole world was watching and waiting and with no other avenue for further gaming the system, they resorted to judicial abracadabra. It was an open sesame, a hocus-pocus of the worst hue. On March 4, 2020, seven Justices of the apex court, again led by CJN Tanko Muhammad, threw out Ihedioha’s plea. But unlike the January 14, 2020 ruling which was unanimous, the verdict was split. The CJN led five other members of the panel – Justices Olukayode Ariwoola, Sylvester Ngwuta, Kudirat Kekere-Ekun, Amina Augie and Uwani Abba-Aji – to dismiss the application on the grounds that the court’s decision was final.
The judgement read by Ariwoola carefully avoided the issues raised by Chief Agabi and became hyperbolic in its interpretation of the powers of the apex court. It was an archetypal voilà moment. He held that the Supreme Court lacked the jurisdiction to review its judgement once it is delivered. “Generally, by the provision of the Rules of this court, it shall not review any judgement once delivered by it save to correct any clerical mistake or some errors arising from any accidental slip of omission, or to vary the judgement or order so as to give effect to its meaning or intention,” Justice Ariwoola bawled.
“A judgement or order shall not be varied when it correctly represents what the court decided nor shall the operative and supportive part of it be varied and a different form substituted,’ he further said, quoting Order 8 Rule 16 of the Supreme Court Rules. It is settled law that this court has no power to change or alter its own judgement or sit as an Appeal Court over its own judgement.
“It is clear from the tone and the wording of the instant application that what is being sought is asking the court to sit over its own judgement already delivered and executed. That is certain beyond the competence of this court. It is not disputable that the jurisdiction of the court is derived from the Constitution and an Act of the National Assembly. There is no constitutional provision for the review of the judgement of the Supreme Court by itself. And, therefore, once it delivers its final judgement, the Supreme Court, subject, of course, to the slip rule principle, it becomes functus officio in respect thereof,” Ariwoola further said.
Justice Centus Nweze, who was not a member of the panel that delivered the January 14 verdict, sharply disagreed in his minority judgement. “In my intimate reading of the January 14 judgement, the meat and substance of Ihedioha’s matter were lost to time frame. This court once set aside its own earlier judgement and, therefore, cannot use the time frame to extinguish the right of any person. This court has powers to overrule itself and can revisit any decision not in accordance with justice,” Nweze said, peeved, rightly, that Uzodimma mischievously misled the court into unjust conclusion with phantom votes he credited to himself in 388 polling units.
When his colleagues ignored him, he warned: “The decision of the Supreme Court in the instant matter will continue to haunt our electoral jurisprudence for a long time to come.” He was prophetic. A clearly distressed Chief Agabi, who could not believe what he was hearing, simply lowered his head into his hands in distress. Lawyers walked out of the courtroom dazed as Uzodimma’s governorship became a fait accompli.
But the good thing about a lie is that, unlike truth, it is too weak to stand for long. Two years after, the Supreme Court lie has expired and it is poetic justice that the court itself declared the obituary and the chief priest who officiated the requiem is the self-same Justice Ariwoola. In a unanimous judgement on Friday, the Supreme Court reversed its earlier dismissal of an appeal by GTBank against a N2.4 billion judgement given in favour of Innoson Motors Nigeria Limited by the Court of Appeal in Ibadan, Oyo State.
In the judgement, a five-man panel, led by Ariwoola, admitted that the Supreme Court can reverse itself and “confessed” that it erred when, in a ruling on February 27, 2019, it dismissed the appeal marked SC/694/2014 filed by GTBank.
In the lead judgement, written by Justice Tijani Abubakar but read by Justice Abdu Aboki, the panel, which also had John Okoro, and Helen Ogunwumiju as members, held that it was misled by its Registry, which failed to promptly bring to the notice of the panel that sat on the case on February 27, 2019 that GTBank had already filed its appellant’s brief of argument.
Relying on the almighty Order 8 Rule 16 of the Supreme Court’s Rules, Justice Abubakar held that the apex court has the power to set aside its own decision in certain circumstances, like any other court. He said such circumstances include where any of the parties obtained judgement by fraud or deceit, where such a decision is a nullity or where it is obvious that the court was misled into giving a decision. Of course, Hope Uzodimma’s case fulfils all these conditions. He obtained the judgement by misleading the court into giving an egregious verdict. In the instant case, the Supreme Court blamed its Registry for the “error”.
“It will be unjust to visit the sin of the court’s Registry on an innocent, vigilant, proactive and diligent litigant. The order dismissing the appeal was, therefore, made in error. It ought not to have been made, if all materials were disclosed. The application is, therefore, meritorious and hereby succeeds,” the court ruled.
Does anyone believe the Supreme Court? I don’t because many questions are concentrating my mind right now. How come it took the apex court more than three years to make this great discovery? Has anyone been sanctioned for it?
Beyond that, what this instant case has proved is that the Supreme Court can set aside its own judgement. Therefore, it lied when it claimed that it had no powers to do so on March 4, 2020.