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PRINCIPLES GUIDING THE INTERPRETATION OF THE NIGERIAN CONSTITUTION

Dictum

In FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF NIGERIA v MUHAMMADU MAIGARI DINGYADI (2018) LPELR-4606 (CA), in the following way at page 33: “One main guiding post is that the principles upon which the Constitution was established rather than the direct operation or literal meaning of the words used measure the purpose and scope of its provisions: See Global Excellence Communications Ltd v. Donald Duke (2007) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1059) 22 @ 41-41 (SC); Attorney General of Bendel State v. Attorney General of the Federation (1982) 3 NCLR 1; Saraki v. F.R.N. (2016) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1500) 531; Skye Bank Plc v. Iwu (2017) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1590) 124. There is always a need for the fulfilment of the object and true intent of the Constitution. Therefore, the Constitution must always be construed in such a way that it protects what it sets out to protect and guide what it is meant to guide Adeleke v. Oyo State House of Assembly (2006) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1006) 608. In interpreting the Constitution of a nation, it is the duty of the Court to ensure the words of the Constitution preserve the intendment of the Constitution Okogie v. A.G. Lagos State (1989) 2 NCLR 337, Abaribe v. Speaker, Abia State House of Assembly (2002) 14 NWLR (Pt. 788) 466, Marwa v. Nyako (2012) LPELR-7837 (SC). Every Constitution has a life and moving spirit within it and it is this spirit that forms the raison de’ entre of the Constitution without which the Constitution will be a dead piece of document. The life and moving spirit of the Constitution of this country is captured in the Preamble. It has been held that when a Constitutional provision is interpreted, the cardinal rule is to look to the Preamble to the Constitution as guiding star, and the directive principles of State Policy as the book of interpretation’, and that while the Preamble embodies the hopes and aspirations of the people, the Directive Principles set out the proximate grounds in the governance of the country Thakur v. Union of India (2008) 6 SCC 1. In other words, in interpreting the wordings of section 212(1)(a) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), the Court should be guided by principles upon which the Constitution was established rather than by the direct operation or literal meaning of the words used in the provision, and where the literal meaning of the words used are not in consonance with the guiding principles, literal interpretation must be jettisoned for another approach that accords with the guiding principles of the Constitution Abaribe v. Speaker, Abia State House of Assembly (supra) (2002) 14 NWLR (Pt. 788) 466; Global Excellence Communications Ltd v. Donald Duke (2007) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1059) 22. The interpretation that would serve the interest of the Constitution and best carries out its objects and purpose must always be preferred – Kalu v. State (1988) 13 NWLR 531.”

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NOT THE DUTY OF A COURT TO FILL GAPS IN STATUTES

In Adewunmi v. A-G., Ekiti State (2002) 2 NWLR (Pt. 751) 474, Wali, J.S.C. said at page 512: “In cases of statutory construction the court’s authority is limited. Where the statutory language and legislative intent are clear and plain, the judicial inquiry terminates there. Under our jurisprudence, the presumption is that ill-considered or unwise legislation will be corrected through democratic process. A court is not permitted to distort a statute’s meaning in order to make it conform with the Judge’s own views of sound social policy.”

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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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PRINCIPLES UPON WHICH THE CONSTITUTION WAS MADE ARE TO GUIDE ITS INTERPRETATION

Thus, in the interpretation of the Constitution, the principles upon which the Constitution was established rather than the direct operation or literal meaning of the words used, measure the purpose and scope of its provisions. See: GLOBAL EXCELLENCE COMMUNICATIONS LTD v DONALD DUKE (2007) 6 NWLR (Pt. 1059) 22 at 41 – 41 (SC); (2007) LPELR-1323 (SC) at pages 18 19; A.G. OF BENDEL STATE v A.G. FEDERATION (1982) 3 NCLR 1;SARAKI v FRN (2016) 3 NWLR (Pt. 1500) 531; SKYE BANK PLC v IWU (2017) 16 NWLR (Pt. 1590) 124; SHELIM v GOBANG (2009) All FWLR (Pt. 496) 1866 at 1878 (SC).

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

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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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STATUTES ARE TO BE INTERPRETED LITERALLY, WHETHER HARSH OR NOT

In the matter of the interpretation of statutes, Courts have been well guided over the years with the clear boundary beyond which Courts cannot enter. Thus, while Courts have the power to interpret the law, it has no licence to veer into the legislative arena or constitute itself into the legislator, however harsh or distasteful the piece of legislation may be. Once the words are plain and unambiguous, the Court is duty bound to give effect to it. In other words, in the interpretation of statutes, words should always be given their ordinary meaning. Where the words are clear, unambiguous and to the point, any addition or subtraction will be sequel to introducing an illegal backdoor amendment. See Setraco Nig Ltd V Kpaji (2017) LPELR-41560(SC) 25-26, paras D-A, per Peter-Odili, JSC; & Skye Bank Plc V Iwu (2017) LPELR-42595(SC) 118 paras B-C, per Ogunbiyi, JSC.

— J.H. Sankey, JCA. Zangye v Tukura (2018) – CA/MK/175/2017

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