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GUIDING PRINCIPLES TO THE INTERPRETATION OF THE NIGERIAN CONSTITUTION

Dictum

In FRN V NGANJIWA, which was cited by the Petitioners as SC/794/2019, but which is reported as FRN v NGANJIWA (2022) LPELR-58066(SC), the Supreme Court has succinctly reviewed decided cases on interpretation of the Constitution and outlined these guiding principles: (a) In interpreting the Constitution, which is the supreme law of the land, mere technical rules of interpretation of statutes should be avoided, so as not to defeat the principles of government enshrined therein. Hence a broader interpretation should be preferred, unless there is something in the text or in the rest of the Constitution to indicate that a narrower interpretation will best carry out the objects and purpose of the Constitution. (b) All Sections of the Constitution are to be construed together and not in isolation. (c) Where the words are clear and unambiguous, a literal interpretation will be applied, thus according the words their plain and grammatical meaning. (d) Where there is ambiguity in any Section, a holistic interpretation would be resorted to in order to arrive at the intention of its framers. (e) Since the draftsperson is not known to be extravagant with words or provisions, every section should be construed in such a manner as not to render other sections redundant or superfluous. (f) If the words are ambiguous, the law maker’s intention must be sought, first, in the Constitution itself, then in other legislation and contemporary circumstances and by resort to the mischief rule. ) The proper approach to the construction of the Constitution should be one of liberalism and it is improper to construe any of the provisions of the Constitution as to defeat the obvious ends which the Constitution was designed to achieve. See also on this: NAFIU RABIU v STATE (1980) 8 11 S.C. 130 at 148; A.G. BENDEL STATE v A.G. FEDERATION & ORS (1981) N.S.C.C. 314 at 372 – 373; BUHARI v OBASANJO (2005) 13 NWLR (Pt. 941) 1 at 281; SAVANNAH BANK LTD v AJILO (1989) 1 NWLR (Pt. 97) 305 at 326; and A.G., ABIA STATE v A.G. FEDERATION (2005) All FWLR (Pt. 275) 414 at 450, which were also referred to by the Apex.

— H.S. Tsammani, JCA. Peter Obi & Anor. v INEC & Ors. (2023) – CA/PEPC/03/2023

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GIVE ORDINARY MEANING WHERE STATUTORY PROVISIONS ARE CLEAR

The above constitutional provisions are clear, plain and unambiguous and should be accorded their literal interpretation by attaching the ordinary grammatical meaning to the words used therein. It is trite law that the elementary rule of construction is that words used in a statute should be given their ordinary grammatical meaning. Where the statutory provisions are plain and unambiguous, the Court should not go beyond their clear import. See Nabhan v. Nabhan (1967) 1 All NLR 47; Adejumo v. Gov; Lagos State (1972) 2 SC 45; Ogbuanyinya v. Okudo (1979) 6-9 SC 32; Ogbonna v. A-G; Imo State (1992) 1 NWLR (Pt. 200) 647 and Skye Bank PLC v. Victor Anaemem Iwu (2017) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1590) 24 at 87, per Nweze, JSC.

— M.A.A. Adumein JCA. Anibor V. EFCC (CA/B/305/2012, 11 DEC 2017)

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CONSTRUE SECTIONS ACCORDING TO PARTS

Where a statute is divided into parts, the ideal is to construe the sections in the part in relation to other sections in that part. Thus although the general rule is to construe the statute as a whole clarity is better attained where the words so indicate, by construing the sections in their related parts.

– Karibe-Whyte, JSC. Savannah v. Ajilo (1989)

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CONSTITUTIONAL DOCUMENTS & STATUTES ARE TO BE GIVEN THEIR ORDINARY MEANING

I think it is trite that in construing a constitutional document there is the need to look at its provisions as a whole and where possible, give such provisions their ordinary and natural meaning. See BANK OF ENGLAND v. VAGLIANO BROS. (1891) AC. 107 at 144 where Lord Herschell put the position thus:- “I think the proper course is in the first instance to examine the language of the statute and to ask what is its natural meaning, uninfluenced by any considerations derived from the previous state of the law, and not to start with inquiring how the law previously stood, and then, assuming that it was probably intended to leave it unaltered, to see if the words of the enactment will bear an interpretation in conformity with this view.”

– A.G. Irikefe JSC. AG Kaduna State v. Hassan (1985) – SC.149/1984

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CONSTRUCTION OF STATUTE SHOULD NOT DEFEAT ITS’ INTENT

Generally, where the words of a statute are plain, clear and unambiguous, the Court should give them their literal meaning. So the golden or literal rule of interpretation of statutes or even a Constitution, is to give the words used therein, their ordinary and plain meaning without importation. The Court should construe the words of a statute, to save it and so avoid making a mockery of the statute, to defeat its manifest intent.

– Yahaya, JCA. Petroleum Resources v. SPDC (2021)

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DOCUMENTS SHOULD BE GIVEN THEIR ORDINARY MEANING

See SOLICITOR-GENERAL, WESTERN NIGERIA v. ADEBONOJO (1971) 1 All NLR 1978 – what happened in the case was that the 1st respondent was granted a scholarship by the Government of Western State of Nigeria. As a result he and his guarantors executed a bond in which he undertook that upon passing the relevant examinations he would serve the Government for a period of five years in any capacity considered appropriate by the Government. The respondent passed the relevant examination and returned to Nigeria but he was not given the necessary certificate because he had not spent the stipulated period on the course. The Government gave him an appointment which, having regard to all the circumstances of the case, was considered appropriate. He was not satisfied. He resigned the appointment before the expiration of five years. The Government consequently sued him and his guarantors for the refund of the amount spent on him pursuant to the grant of the scholarship.

The learned trial Judge found that the 1st respondent committed a breach of the bond by resigning his appointment before the expiration of the period stipulated in the agreement and entered judgment for the Government. On appeal to the then Western State Court of Appeal by the respondents, the court allowed the appeal and set aside the judgment of the learned trial Judge. The Western State Court of Appeal held, inter alia, that to be appropriate, any capacity in which the 1st respondent was called upon to serve by virtue of the relevant clause of the agreement must be reasonable. Dissatisfied with the judgment, the Government appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court allowed the appeal, set aside the judgment of the Western State Court of Appeal, and restored the judgment of the learned trial Judge. In allowing the appeal, the Supreme Court stated, inter alia, as follows: “Now we have already set out the provisions of clause 4(a) of exhibit C and in the events which had happened it is easy to see why a consideration of that clause has become a matter of paramount relevance. To us, this clause clearly stipulates that after qualification the first defendant could be offered employment by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Education, Western State in a capacity considered suitable by the regional government. In his consideration of that clause and his application of it to the facts of this case, Delumo, J. had held that according to the provision of the clause it is the regional government that would decide the capacity which is appropriate. On the other hand, the Western State Court of Appeal took the view that the word ”reasonable” and (the ”concept of reasonableness”) should be imported into the contracts of the parties for the purpose of construction. Neither of the parties to Exhibit C (and Exhibit H) contemplated that the word should be included in their agreement and throughout Exhibit C (and Exhibit H) that word was not even breathed. It is obvious from the confusion that arose in the Western State Court of Appeal itself that the court was in difficulty to ascertain the real position into which the word ‘reasonable’ could or should be fixed. It is the alphabet of his study to any lawyer that in the construction of documents the words must first be given their simple and ordinary meaning and that under no circumstances may new or additional words be imported into the text unless the documents would be by the absence of that which is imported impossible to understand.”

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GENERAL PROVISION MUST GIVE WAY FOR SPECIFIC PROVISION

The law is trite that where there is a specific legislation on a matter, the general principle of law must give way and cannot override the specific provisions of law on the subject. See Orubu v. INEC (1988) 12 SCN) 256 at 349, Unity Bank Plc. v. Kay Plastic Nig. Limited & anor (2011) LPELR 8839 (CA).

– T. Akomolafe-Wilson, JCA. Onnoghen v. FRN (2019) – CA/A/44C/2019

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