2011: Judiciary and election petitions

Casmir Igbokwe

ONE ingredient that makes democracy desirable is a free-and-fair election. When there is a problem with this process, crises are bound to erupt. Nigeria is preparing for another round of elections in 2011. The new chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Prof. Attahiru Jega, has requested about N74bn to prepare the voter register. There are questions and apprehension as to whether we will get it right this time around.

Some Nigerians are hopeful. They pray and believe that with divine intervention, we shall overcome. Some others think the road to a credible election is still thorny. Based on our antecedents and what is currently happening, I‘m tempted to join the latter group.

My fear is anchored on a number of ominous signs. For instance, money is still an issue in our electoral system. The Osun East Senatorial District of the Peoples Democratic Party has informed Nigerians that any aspirant from that area with less than N500m in their accounts cannot aspire to govern the state. What this means is that only those with the power to buy bags of rice, salt and amala have the wisdom to rule.

There are other problems. But my main concern here today is on our judiciary. A few days ago, the Mustapha Akanbi Foundation held a symposium in Abuja on the courts and the management of election petitions.

According to Akanbi, who is the former chairman of the Independent Corrupt Practices and other Related Offences Commission, there are reasonable grounds for intervention and checkmating the crippling monster of corruption that is threatening our judicial system.

Retired Justice Kayode Eso also carpeted the judiciary. He reportedly lamented that the petitions against elections conducted four years ago were still pending in courts. ”Any system that permits of such disgraceful act,” he said, ”can never be right.”

I agree. It is disheartening that in 2010 and a few months to fresh elections, we are yet to completely dispose of the election petitions in such states as Osun, Ekiti and Sokoto.

The Sokoto case is particularly worrisome. The issues at stake are clear. The All Nigeria Peoples Party nominated Magatakarda Wamakko as its governorship candidate in 2007. The Peoples Democratic Party nominated Alhaji Mukhtari Shagari as its standard-bearer.

However, due to some political intrigues, Wamakko curiously switched to the PDP and became its candidate. Shagari was asked to be his running mate. Being a loyal party man, he agreed. Of course, the PDP won the governorship election. But that was the beginning of the problems.

The candidate of the Democratic Peoples Party, Alhaji Maigari Dingyadi, contested the result of the election at the Election Petitions Tribunal in Sokoto. He alleged, among others, that Shagari was not validly nominated as Wamakko‘s running mate, having filed his nomination papers on April 27, 2007 (13 days after the polls), but backdated it to Feb. 12, 2007. He lost at the tribunal but won at the appeal court. The court ordered for a rerun.

Remember that there was a similar case in Rivers State. The incumbent governor, Rotimi Amaechi, challenged the election of Celestine Omehia as the governor of the state. He contended that Omehia was not validly nominated as PDP‘s candidate and that his election should be nullified. The Supreme Court agreed with Amaechi and gave him the mandate without any other election.

Nevertheless, the Sokoto rerun was held on May 24, 2008 without correcting the invalid nomination that prompted it in the first place. INEC declared the PDP the winner. This would have been a sweet victory, all things being equal. But all things were not equal and have not been equal since then.

Dingyadi and his party went back to the courts. To cut the long story short, the Court of Appeal in Sokoto heard the DPP‘s appeal on Jan. 18, 2010 and later fixed judgement for Feb. 24, 2010. But before this could happen, INEC‘s lawyer accused the appeal court panellists of bias and asked the National Judicial Council to intervene. The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, directed the court to halt delivering judgement until after the investigation of the allegation.

The panellists were not found culpable. But rather than deliver judgement that had been fixed for March 16, some other legal technicalities came into play. Essentially, the DPP was said not to have properly withdrawn its interlocutory appeal, which it earlier made to the Supreme Court. The party filed a fresh motion. The apex court adjourned this case to Oct. 14, 2010.

What this means is that until the Supreme Court dispenses with this extraneous matter, the appeal court will not deliver its judgement. And who knows, we may still be talking about this case in January when fresh elections may take place.

This is unhealthy. I may not be a lawyer. But common sense tells me that certain things are not just right in the way the Sokoto governorship case has been handled. That is probably why the Nigerian Bar Association expressed grave concern over what it called ”the legal contrivances put in the path of the constitutionally approved court by the National Judicial Council.”

The immediate past NBA President, Rotimi Akeredolu, further noted that ”to embrace jurisdiction under very dubious and doubtful circumstances and stultify the constitutional duties of other courts amounts in simple terms to a judicial coup d‘etat and grievous assault on the constitution itself.”

Our lawyers and judges should know that Nigerians are watching with keen interest. Politicians may rig elections, but if the judiciary is upright and dispenses justice as fast as possible, our democracy will get better.

In the Second Republic, Shehu Shagari won the presidential election on the platform of the National Party of Nigeria. But he was not sworn in until after the case instituted against him by Chief Obafemi Awolowo was dispensed with.

In an interview with this newspaper (see today‘s SUNDAY PUNCH, page 6), former Attorney-General of the Federation, Chief Richard Akinjide, further noted that it would be unthinkable to swear in any president in the United States of America before the hearing of election petitions. He cited the case of former President George Bush and Gore at the Supreme Court in Florida, which was resolved within a period of less than 40 days before swearing-in.

As stakeholders in the Nigerian project, every Nigerian must show interest in the process of electing our leaders. Since we have identified leadership as the bane of our country, we must do everything possible to ensure that only credible people are elected into leadership positions.

We must not only register and come out en masse to vote, we must also be ready to defend our choices. If I do my own part well and you do your own part, there may not be any need for anybody to engage in long and unnecessary legal technicalities. Those who hope to win elections by rigging or manipulating the process may succeed temporarily, but ultimately, good always triumphs over evil; and truth will always prevail over falsehood.

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1 Comment »

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