383 views | Sanusi Muhammad | March 14, 2020
Several Nigerians were not too offended with the reportedly massive irregularities that characterized and dominated the outcome of the 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011 general elections as much as they were with verdicts from the various election petition tribunals across the country, notably those judgments from the Supreme Court which affirmed the ‘elections’ of Olusegun Obasanjo in 2003, Yar Adu’a in 2007 Jonathan in 2011 and Buhari in 2019. Researchers expressed fears and reluctance of conducting thorough studies, using alleged ‘inflated’ figures from various general elections which unfortunately had already made their way into the National Archives. If one thinks their fears were unfounded, how on earth can one explain election figures showing almost 100% or more voters’ turnout in certain areas or one giving the impression that even dead people voted? How can one swallow the illogical of a people continuously, and overwhelmingly ‘voting’ for a particular party in certain states in five (5) straight elections despite the clear visibility of bad governance everywhere in such states? These are some of the fraud many of our courts directly or indirectly endorsed as correct.
It takes one of the most morally bankrupt consciences to rig an election, but it takes even a more morally bankrupt one to legitimize and affirm it. One wonders where the aggrieved person in an election can find justice if he can’t find it in the tribunals. Before and after elections, multiple alarms of foul play were raised in different quarters and during the course of the elections, many candidates complained of rigging, violence, manipulation and oppression, but all INEC could do as the umpire was to advise them to reach the tribunals if they were not satisfied. Does that mean INEC itself was satisfied with results of all the elections it presided, no matter how dirty and those dissatisfied should go to the tribunals? Was it even a matter of satisfaction or dissatisfaction? With this development, it was, therefore, the duty of the election tribunals to rescue the people from being governed through illegal mandates in various capacities – a duty which they so far woefully failed to adequately perform. The Electoral Act itself has badly incapacitated the electoral process to checkmate rigging and punish riggers.
The elections petitions tribunals of 2011 and 2019 did not fare any significantly better than those of 1999, 2003 and 2007. Over the past few years, outcomes of various 2015 election tribunals left many people baffled and dejected. Some of the outcomes were simply bizarre, to say the least, even though not all were completely unexpected.
It has gradually become very clear that once you were not declared the winner after the polls, you stand virtually no chance of reclaiming your mandate from the suspected corruption infested tribunals. First, the tribunals usually give much emphasis on many flimsy technicalities and often dismiss several petitions on such grounds as Nigerians witnessed of recent. Secondly, they often summarize all arguments and evidence brought before them as having failed to prove the case ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ – an ambiguous phrase so popularly and notoriously used to dismiss many competent and genuine cases.
There are so many problems bedevilling the quest for electoral justice in Nigeria. The first starts with the composition of the tribunals. Quite often judges and tribunal members are hurriedly constituted from entirely different areas from where the elections took place, leaving them with virtually zero knowledge on what transpired in the area or how the area is. Although every tribunal is expected to only rely on arguments presented before it and not otherwise, we cannot say that knowledge of an area will not help a judge to make better-informed decisions on so many things. The time frame for settling electoral cases and the unnecessary delays and adjournments of proceedings within such time frames is also another critical problem.
The ‘winners’ are allowed to be sworn in and properly settle in power while petitioners are left to wander and wallow in search of justice. Winners, after being sworn in using state resources at their disposals to not only diligently prosecute their defence in the tribunals through competent and experienced lawyers but also to scuttle any effort for justice to be done against them. This is apart from the likelihood of using the same resources to adequately prepare and gain upper hands in case of a re-run. These are luxuries which the petitioner does not only lack but also struggle to maintain his tempo after the elections and sustain his zeal enough to prosecute his case. He finds things very difficult and in some cases, he has to even pay his witnesses in addition to other sundry issues.
Secondly, the tribunals are themselves inadequate. Two tribunals are set up per state; one for the governorship and the other for the national and state assembly elections with very few-often an average of one per geo-political zone – Appeal Courts serving the entire country. The national and state assembly elections are packed with several cases which are expected to be settled within the limited time. As such, the tribunals hardly give enough attention to each case as required. Elections are not perfect, that is why we have election petition tribunals and their duty is to ensure speedy justice. Justice must not be delayed because it is totally unfair and unacceptable for someone to continue sitting on an illegal or stolen mandate for long just because the tribunals were dragging the case for whatever reason but not far from corruption.
Thirdly, INEC is not playing the role of a truly unbiased electoral umpire in the hearings of election petitions. In the cases, INEC’s objectives should not be about defending its actions no matter how wrong during the elections, it should be about defending the truth; it doesn’t matter whether the truth was discovered after the polls. INEC Staff is humans; the commission can’t defend their indefensible actions during elections just because they are joined as respondents in petitions. They should admit their mistakes, take responsibility for their actions, give explanations for them, expose and punish their staff involved and provide the true facts with which the work of the tribunals would be simplified and block corruption rather than complicating proceedings.
The fourth is the cost of justice in Nigeria. Prosecuting an average case in a Nigerian Court needs huge financial resources and time. Many a time, one cannot get justice without resources to hire good lawyers at exorbitant costs. In election petitions, one may also need the services of forensic experts, data analysts, huge logistic arrangements and other expenses. This often costs a petitioner with a good case but without money his victory in the tribunals.
The fifth but also the most crucial is corruption. The entire Nigerian justice system comprising security agencies, judiciary and other bodies are perceived by the majority to be highly corrupt. Indeed, the elections tribunals are seen as some of the worst organs of corruption. There were reports of allegations in 2003, 2007, 2011 and even 2015 and 2019 that judges jostled and lobbied to be appointed to preside over election petition tribunals because of the lucrative in prospects involved. Power-monger politicians stop at nothing to influence and manipulate the election petition tribunals and to comprise their officials in order to be in power.
Currently, most of the rulings coming out of the 2019 elections petitions tribunals including the Appeal Courts and the Supreme Court are not showing a significantly different pattern from the dismal ones of the past, even though there are some signs of little improvement because of the claimed anti-corruption stance of the government in power at the centre. Many of the judgments pronounced were seemingly unjust and hard to comprehend. The level of success of the Appeal Courts in correcting those anomalies determines the future confidence level of people in the judicial-electoral process. Eyes were now on the Courts of Appeal who were expected to thoroughly review erred cases for justice to prevail.
The Appeal Courts failed to salvage the situation as was in the past and things continued like that, it has reached a stage where everyone now thinks of rigging his way to power since there is every chance that his victory would not be overturned by the tribunal and even if it does, he has every advantage to win the re-run, except of course if the tribunal chose the rare case of declaring the petitioner as the outright winner. After the 2007 and 2011 elections, the tribunal nullified the governorship elections of Kogi, Bayelsa, Cross River, Kebbi, Adamawa and Sokoto states, but the governors all won their re-run elections against their battered and powerless opponents whose energies were sapped after several months of pursuing their cases at the tribunals. Candidates who could adequately prove that they won elections should rightly be declared winners instead of wasting public funds by ordering re-runs.
One of the most popular opinions among the politicians is that it is better to rig elections and be taken to court than get rigged and go to court. One of the problems with election rigging is that no matter how hard one tries, one cannot completely hide it, although one may get away with it and even get the chance to repeat it. The law says everyone is innocent until proven guilty but in reality, some people are guilty until proven innocent.
Former Governor Fayose of Ekiti state, Governors Darius Ishaku of Taraba and Nyeson Wike of Rivers, Ganduje of Kano, Lalong of Plateau, Tambuwal of Sokoto, Ozunduma of Imo and Diri of Bayelsa are alleged typical examples of those who stole the mandates of others with the connivance of the courts. Should the situation be encouraged to continue or we need to establish a permanent court for election matters only?
Muhammad is a commentator on national issues