Dr. Biodun Layonu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) in this interview with AKEEM NAFIU, speaks on independence of judiciary, rule of law and sundry issues
How much of independence would you say the nation’s judiciary has enjoyed over the years especially since President Muhammadu Buhari-led government began?
Generally, my view about the independence of the judiciary is that it is the arm itself that must assert and enforce its own independence. We can’t be talking about the independence of the judiciary in the absence of the arm of government standing against every action of the other arms of government to relegate it. There is every tendency that any government that comes would want to control everything. Usually, if care is not taken, the executive will want to control both the legislature and the judiciary. So, it is for the two other arms to assert themselves constitutionally and not allow the executive to control them. They must enforce the independence that the Constitution has given them. I am not saying they must not co-operate with the executive but constitutionally, they must assert their independence.
Do you think the judiciary has been asserting its constitutionally guaranteed independence?
Well, from what I can see, I think the Judiciary has does its best to assert itself in the light of the prevailing circumstances in the country. However, because of its own very nature, it is still reliance on the executive to ensure that its orders are carried out and that the rule of law prevails. This is because the control and the machinery of enforcement of orders are not with the judiciary. A lot of responsibilities still lie with the executive. For instance, you will need police to enforce a court’s order. It’s beyond the Judiciary. So, the failings that we see, particularly relating to matters involving the government is the yardstick to test whether or not the rule of law prevails.
Generally, to what extent do you think President Muhammadu Buhari’s government has upheld the rule of law?
I think there are very important cases that tend to dispel that belief. If we are talking in terms of quantities and numbers, we might say something to the contrary. But, we can only judge or measure with certain very important cases. In all these, I think the government can do better. A lot more can still be done.
How best do you think the menace of fake news and election results can be addressed ahead of 2019 general election?
The issue of social media and its ramifications including hate speech and fake news is so entangled and intertwined with free speech and its control in a democratic society. Beyond the level of invoking the traditional laws that are in place, I want to suggest, if it is technologically possible, that there should be a general warning on every platforms on the social media that will impress on the people to be wary of the information available to them. I think it’s a matter of general education. People need to be circumspect about every news at their disposal whether on the social media or newspapers. It is not all of them that are true. Of course, social media is the most affected. All sorts of things are put there. I think there should be general education for the populace to be wary of some of these things. This is because it is a modern day phenomenon which is very difficult to control. The summary of all I am saying is that it is only general education that can help to deal with this menace and not so much legislations because there will be serious problems concerning what represents free speech, hate speech and fake news in a democratic society.
At the last count, the country now has 91 registered political parties. What do we stand to benefit from this plurality, particularly as we are heading towards next years’ election?
The criteria to register a political party are not difficult to meet. However, in this country, people tend to abuse everything, particularly when they are at liberty to do something. Here is a right which everyone should cherish with dignity, but it is being abused coupled with the nation’s political terrain where there are hardly any serious principle and fundamental belief, everybody is just looking for a platform to express his political aspiration. We cannot blame the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for registering the parties. The Supreme Court has interpreted the constitutional conditions for floating a political party in such a way that makes it not difficult. But the responsibility now lies with Nigerians to know this is not a right that should be used frivolously. What is lacking is the respect for the right which people are now using frivolously. I don’t think having a large number of political parties will make any positive impact on the polity. It may rather add to INEC’s burden. There is the cost implication of printing ballot papers with the logo of all the parties.
Is the issue of the removal of the Senate President, Dr. Bukola Saraki, constitutional or more of Senate’s rule?
The Constitution makes provision for how you appoint or elect leaders of both chambers of the National Assembly. It also makes provision for how they can be removed. So, it’s a constitutional issue. Though, each of the legislative houses has its own rules that are made for the purpose of being able to ventilate what the Constitution has already provided for, but the issue of removal of the Senate’s president is fundamentally constitutional. So, anytime this is to be done, there must be strict compliance with the Constitution.
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