In contemporary times, certain judges in Nigeria openly declare their alignment with specific political factions, unabashedly revealing the extent of political influence within the judiciary. These judges no longer feign adherence to principles, precedent, or proportionality in their rulings. Drawing inspiration from Cameroon’s terminology, this phenomenon is now identified as “judicial mercenarism” characterized by a jurisprudence of “buy am; sell am.”
The Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa, adopted by the Organisation of African Unity in July 1977, initially addressed mercenaries participating in armed conflict for private gain. However, recent events in Nigeria prompted the former President of the Nigerian Bar Association, Olumide Akpata, to bring attention to a new strain of judicial subordination referred to as judicial mercenarism.
While judicial officers are not typically politicians, their involvement in power politics suggests elements of mercenarism. This mercenarism may manifest through actions such as judicial fornication, soliciting, or contumeliousness. Judicial fornication is exemplified by instances where judges align themselves closely with political figures, compromising their impartiality. An illustrative case involves a Chief Judge who, according to a memoir by Nasir El-Rufai, actively sought support from the Minister of the Federal Capital Territory.
This conduct led to the transformation of the judiciary from an impartial institution to one serving the government of the day. Notably, the judiciary became instrumentalized rather than acting as an independent entity holding the government accountable.
In another instance, the Chief Judge of the FCT, Husseini Baba-Yusuf, engaged in judicial soliciting by praising the Minister of the FCT and asserting that the judiciary is part of the government. This open invitation into an intimate transaction indicated a departure from the judiciary’s role as an independent check on the government.
Despite the egregious nature of these actions, consequences for judges engaging in judicial mercenarism appear unlikely in contemporary times. This shift is attributed to the prevalence of such behavior in political and election disputes, where financial inducements and open trades in judicial outcomes occur. The confidence with which judges announce their political affiliations further highlights the audacity of judicial mercenarism.
For instance, a Justice of Appeal openly informed appellants in a governorship dispute over Lagos State that they “came empty-handed and left empty-handed.” This unabashed display of bias is increasingly common, as evidenced by judges openly proclaiming political alliances, referencing popular songs in their rulings, or injecting unrelated religious elements into their decisions.
In one case, a judge relied on a popular song to assert that a political figure “cannot ‘go lo lo lo lo’ and ‘buga won’ as the duly elected governor.” Another judge, in a Kano State governorship election petition, went beyond legal matters, branding one side as “bandits in politics” and condemning supporters as if they were a violent cult.
These instances underscore the deviation from the traditional dignity and deliberative nature of judicial decision-making. The erosion of impartiality and the overt display of political alignment in judicial pronouncements characterize the unsettling phenomenon of judicial mercenarism in Nigeria.