The limits of the ECOWAS Court of Justice

The ECOWAS Court of Justice was not set up to overturn verdicts of the Supreme Courts of member nations, nor to dictate to heads of state of member nations how to govern their countries . There is therefore no precedent in ECOWAS law where the verdict of a supreme Court of a member nation has ever been overturned or set aside by the ECOWAS Court.

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Those making a big meal out of the threat by Mr. Charles Margai, the counsel for the former Vice-President Sam Sumana , that he will take the case to the ECOWAS Court, if the Sierra Leone Supreme Court rules against his client, should bear this in mind . The Supreme Court of any country is the highest court in the land and the final arbiter of justice. Once the justices of the Supreme Court have rendered a verdict, that is it. No local or international court can overturn it . The verdict is final. Were it possible for another court from elsewhere to override the Supreme Court of a nation, there would be no need for continuance of the principle of the sovereignty of states in international law and diplomacy.

It was the then Minister of Justice of Liberia, Counselor Christiana Tarr , who explained to her country’s journalists and civil society activists on September 5, 2013 , in the matter between journalist Rodney Sieh and the then Minister of Agriculture , Hon. Chris Toe, that the ECOWAS Court of Justice has limited jurisdiction over the decision of the Supreme Court. This precedent applies to all other member states of ECOWAS. The ECCJ cannot override the verdict of the Supreme Court of any member state.

Under the revised Protocols 9 and 10 of the ECCJ’s charter, the mandate handed to the court to give advisory opinions or settle disputes does not extend to  Supreme Court rulings and verdicts or complex constitutional matters , dealing for instance, with the exercise of the executive power of the head of state of a sovereign country.

In sum, what this means is that if the Supreme Court rules in favour of President Ernest Koroma, the ECOWAS Court has no jurisdiction or mandate to overturn the verdict. Nor can the Ecowas Court dictate that former VP Sam Sumana be reinstated.

Lawyers, like journalists , are thrust with the responsibility not only to serve their clients but to educate the public. It is an act of deceit by any lawyer to raise the hopes of the public on the outcome of a legal matter when that lawyer knows fully well that the expected outcome  is  contrary to what the public expects.  Mr. Margai , for the sake of clarification and to help bring the tension down in the country , owed the unlearned public the duty to educate them about what he hoped to achieve by taking the Sam Sumana case to the ECOWAS Court after the Supreme Court would have rendered its verdict. This may not have been necessary in normal circumstances , but according to some media reports  Charles Margai had unduly raised the hopes of his client and his supporters that he was confident that given the evidence and arguments before the court, Sam Sumana will win the case. However, according to the media, if the Supreme Court rules against his client, he will pursue the matter next in the ECOWAS Court. Charles should have made it clear , as was done by the Liberian Justice Minister, that the ECOWAS Court has limited jurisdiction over the decision of the Supreme Court. What he said however seemed to create the belief that victory would then come from the ECOWAS Court .

Who knows ? False assurances from advisers who did not mean well could have helped to harden the heart of the former VP and encouraged him to go down the wire in the many missteps that cost him his job  , instead of humbling himself and seeking the option of peace and reconciliation.

If his own lawyer has failed to let him know , let it be made  clear by this newspaper to the former Vice-President that his only hope of victory is a verdict in his favour by the Supreme Court . If the Supreme Court rules in favor of the President, there is nothing that anybody else or any court would do to change the verdict. He must not allow Charles Margai to give him false hopes. The decision of the Supreme Court is always final.  Let Charles Margai stop giving him unrealistic post-verdict expectations and hopes. The ECOWAS Court of Justice has no authority to overturn a Supreme Court verdict.

If at all, all the ECOWAS Court would do is give an advisory opinion , which will not be binding .

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