As Nigerians await with bated breath the judgement of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, PEPT, controversies continue to play up from different quarters.
Both Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, and Peter Obi of the Labour Party, LP, are in court seeking to upturn the victory of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress.
The PEPT after taking a final address from all the parties in the suit adjourned the matter for judgement on a date to be communicated.
Expectedly, series of events leading up to the close of arguments by all the parties in the case at the tribunal have also been revealing and disturbing.
The emerging issues have raised awareness and political consciousness among Nigerians, including those who were, hitherto, uninterested in the political process.
The issues at the tribunal have also kept Nigerians on their toes as their concerns and expectations grow by the day.
However, following the growing tension and anxiety, some Nigerians decided to launch the campaign, “All eyes on the judiciary.”
The campaign initially started trending on the social media space, but as anxiety heightened, the “All eyes on the judiciary,” campaigners erected billboards with the inscription boldly carved on them across the major cities, including the FCT.
Their intention is to constantly remind the judges that Nigerians do not expect anything but justice from them. The billboards are to serve as a constant reminder to the judges to be resolute, and undaunted, and to deliver the right judgement without fear or favour.
However, the move did not go down well with the APC-led federal government, as it ordered for the total removal of all such billboards through its agency, saying the sponsors of the billboards were blackmailing the presidential election petition tribunal.
The order to clampdown on such billboards across the country was given by the government through the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON), which was also given the instruction to sanction the violators.
The Council, therefore, dissolved the Advertising Standard Panel, ASP, which is the statutory panel under the agency charged with the responsibility to ensure that advertisements conform to the prevailing laws of the federation, as well as the code of advertising ethics.
The Council also suspended the Director and Deputy Director of ASP for failure to diligently exercise their functions as the gatekeepers of advertising, advertisement and marketing communications.
A statement by the Director-General of the Advertising Regulatory Council of Nigeria (ARCON), Dr. Olalekan Fadolapo, said the council would set up a committee to investigate the circumstances that led to the approval of one of the concepts of the advert and the breach of the vetting guidelines.
He said: “The Advertising Standards Panel of the Council also erred in the approval of one of the concepts as the advertisement failed to vet guidelines on the ground that the cause forming the central theme of the campaign in the advertisement is a matter pending before the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal. Hence, it’s jus pendis. A matter being jus pendis and awaiting judicial pronouncement is, by virtue of the Nigerian legal system, precluded from being a subject of public statement, debate, discussion, and advertisement, among others.
“The advertisement is controversial and capable of instigating public unrest and breach of public peace. It is considered as blackmail against the Nigerian Judiciary, the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, and particularly the Honourable Justices of the Tribunal, who are expected to discharge their judicial functions without fear or favour, over a matter that is currently jus pendis.”
However, reactions have continued to trail the government’s action, with many insinuating that the government was hiding something from Nigerians.
There are those who believe that the government’s excuse for the clampdown is very flimsy, stressing that there is more to the action than meets the ordinary eyes.
But, there are others who support the government’s action, as they also see the billboards and their messages as a threat and blackmail on the judiciary and the judges.
Yet, there are those who have raised the alarm that the action bears all the insignia of authoritarianism and dictatorship and must not be allowed.
One of those pushing the argument that the action is a sign of autocracy, despotism and dictatorship, is the Special Assistant on Public Communications to Atiku Abubakar, Phrank Shaibu.
He described the entire action as clear evidence of President Tinubu’s authoritarianism and assault on freedom of speech.
He noted that the entire incident has just reinforced the argument that election cases in court should be done and dusted before the beneficiaries of questionable elections are inaugurated, wondering how the message, “All eyes on the judiciary” could be a threat to society.
“The basic principle of social justice is about the people. The advertisers of the billboards only did what the norm is in civilised climes. It was the agents working to impress an interest that read meanings to that innocuous advert, otherwise it is a basic principle that all eyes must be on the wheel of justice.
“All eyes must naturally be on the wheel of justice because when justice is delivered, it must be ‘seen’ to have been just. In any case, both Tinubu and the APC are before the same court. It is curious how they find this particular message upsetting. Anyway, even if they pull down the billboards, they can never stop all eyes from being on the judiciary at this historic time,” he submitted.
He likened the ARCON’s action to that of the Lagos State Signage and Advertising Agency, LASAA, which, according to him, had built a reputation of denying Nigerians the right to carry adverts considered to be unfavourable to the Lagos State Government.
He further said: “Tinubu has, once again, put his dictatorial tendency on public display. How has a simple message that says, “All eyes are on the judiciary,” suddenly become offensive? This is a clear case of abuse of office and it simply reinforces the argument that court cases ought to be concluded before inauguration, so that beneficiaries of fraudulent elections would not be able to manipulate the system in their favour.
“Billboards are used to display educational messages. Is there any offence in alerting Nigerians to the fact that all eyes should, indeed, be on the judiciary? In any case, is there any Nigerian that does not know that the judiciary is hearing the case challenging Tinubu’s fraudulent victory?
“Even the justices themselves are aware that all eyes are on them because of the historic assignment that they are saddled with. If Tinubu had nothing to hide, why would he be afraid of such a message?”
In his opinion, a human rights lawyer, Inibehe Effiong said there was nothing inciting in the message on the billboards, even as he warned that no one should be targeted for that.
“The law allows the courts to be amenable to criticisms and scrutiny. It is a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of expression,” he added.
Nigerians on the social media space were not left out as Omotayo Williams tweeted, saying, “Nigerians put up banners saying ‘All eyes on the judiciary” without making mention of any political party and it is being pulled down. I thought we all wanted a fair judiciary? Keep pulling it down, we will keep erecting. Meanwhile, give us a judgement date.”
Also, Morris Monye said: “If you remove billboards, Nigerians will do posters. If you remove posters, they will do stickers, and if you remove stickers, the people will become walking billboards (Lord’s Chosen style). This is how frustrated Nigerians are at the moment. You know why? All Eyes On the Judiciary!”
Also reacting, the sponsors of the billboards, through UC Maxwell, have said they would not be cowed or intimidated because free speech is a constitutional right of every Nigerian.
“We consider this attempt as a violation of the rights of citizens to freedom of expression, and the press, as guaranteed under Section 39 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 as amended,” he said.
He noted that the sponsors had responded to the four main points in the memo, saying, “The central theme of the billboard, ‘All Eyes On the Judiciary,’ is not a matter before the court. The issues before the court are as they relate to the presidential election held on February 25, 2023, and do not in any way affect the citizen’s duty to keep track of the exercise of governmental powers, as provided for by the Constitution.
“Of the many issues for determination before the presidential election petitions tribunal and various election petition tribunals in Nigeria, the petitioners and respondents to the suits before the various tribunals did not present ‘All Eyes On the Judiciary’ as an issue for determination.
“The call on Nigerians to be committed to holding the government accountable through the ‘All Eyes On the Judiciary’ theme does not, in any way, instigate the breach of public peace. The duty to criticise government officials, and hold them accountable is established by law. It is instructive to note that the only thing that can, and in fact, will instigate public unrest and breach of public peace is where the government, through any of its arms, particularly the judiciary, manifests grave injustice against the people.
“The Nigerian people will not accept the deliberate attempt to regard their duty of holding government officials accountable as blackmail. We consider this attempt as cheap blackmail in itself and it will be resisted in all its forms. We must remind the ARCON that it has an obligation under Section 22 of the Constitution to uphold the fundamental objectives of the Constitution and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the government to the people.
“We call on the leadership of ARCON to weigh the issues before it and take its actions circumspectly with equity, fairness, and justice at the very fore. We reiterate our commitment to keeping checks on all arms of government, and we will not cower to any intimidation or blackmail from any agency.”
But, for a labour activist and former General Secretary of the National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers, NUPENG, Chief Frank Kokori, the government was right to have clamped down on such billboards, as he also agreed that the sponsors were blackmailing the judiciary.
“How can people just put billboards all over the place, warning the judiciary to be careful: all eyes on the judiciary?
“Has that ever happened since 1959 when we started having elections in this country? How can you just carry billboards and be blackmailing the judiciary?” He wondered.
Corroborating the government’s position that billboards and the messages on them amounted to blackmail on the judiciary, he said: “How can you do that in a country? Don’t you know that the judiciary is sacred? Just because the judges will not answer you, you are blackmailing them? Why should anybody blackmail the judiciary?”
He further argued that if it were to be in a country where the leaders are hard or dictatorial, all those behind the billboards would be rounded up and thrown into a cell.
“They will be locked up, tried and sentenced to a long term in jail. You can’t abuse or blackmail the judiciary just like that,” he said.