All Eyes on the Judiciary

All Eyes on the Judiciary: The Burden of the Freedom of Expression

By Taiwo Abiodun-Oni

In a world teeming with voices longing to be heard, freedom of expression stands as an unwavering cornerstone of democratic societies. The recent removal of the ‘All eyes on the Judiciary’ billboard in Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory sends ripples through our understanding of this foundational right.

These billboards, a stark testament to the political turmoil following the February 25 presidential election, were emblematic reminders of the onus upon the judiciary. They shouted a simple yet profound message to all who passed by: transparency, accountability, and justice are the clarion calls of a vigilant society. The removal of such a message has ignited fervent conversations and speaks to a broader debate: how far can freedom of expression stretch in a vibrant democracy?

Reflecting on this, the judiciary, often revered as the “last hope of the common man,” finds itself in a precarious dance between justice and public perception. When a decision as consequential as a presidential election is at stake, with contenders like Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi challenging the announced results, the nation’s collective gaze shifts towards the courts, awaiting a verdict that resonates with justice.

Yet, the very essence of democracy risks erosion when voices of dissent, as expressed through these billboards, are muffled. Think of Atiku’s loyalist, Don Pedro-Obaseki, who passionately reminded the judges that the “eyes of the world” were upon them. Or consider the fervor of netizens who, galvanized by ‘Violence Space’, rallied behind the call for transparent justice.

But herein lies the paradox. While freedom of expression is an inalienable right, the intent behind the conveyed message also matters. Are these billboards a beacon of democratic watchfulness or, as some opine, a subtle tool to intimidate the judiciary, pushing them into a verdict corner?

Recall the disconcerting revelation from Nigeria’s Corruption Index Report (2018-2020), spotlighting the unsettling level of corruption within the justice sector. With N9.457bn alleged as bribes linked mostly to election matters, it’s a sobering reminder of the imperfections that plague even our most revered institutions. But does this mean we should cast a blanket of distrust over the entire judiciary? Certainly not.

Veteran advocates like Mike Ozekhome and Abdul Mahmud view the removal of these billboards as a clampdown on freedom of speech. They underscore the essence of eternal vigilance in a democracy. On the flip side, figures like Anthony Sani, chieftain of the All Progressives Congress, argue that the billboards, veiled under the cloak of freedom of expression, sought to “frighten the judiciary.”

Such divided opinions elucidate the delicate balance democracies strive to maintain. Dumebi Kachikwu’s perspective underscores this, cautioning against viewing any victory for President Tinubu in courts as an automatic indication of judicial compromise. After all, the law is blind, guided only by evidence and facts.

What this saga reinforces is the sanctity of dialogue. As the tribunal’s ruling looms and has been set for September 16th, 2023, it’s crucial to remember that a balance must be struck. A balance between allowing uninhibited expression and ensuring that such expressions do not stray into intimidation or undue influence. The integrity of our democratic institutions and the soul of our nation depends on it. As the world watches, may the scales of justice be balanced, free from prejudice and bias.

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