Thursday, May 19, 2011

Appeal to Nigeria’s election petition tribunals

Congratulations dear compatriots on the success of our fourth successive elections in the Fourth Republic. The polls have been adjudged as freer, fairer and more credible than all the previous general elections including the widely acclaimed June 12, 1993 polls. This calls for back-slapping and felicitations. However, it is important to know that the 2011 General Elections have not ended. Indeed, we have only concluded the second in a three dimensional process. We are done with the pre-election and the Election Day phases.

The third and final phase is the post-election period which we are currently in. This post-election period is when various democratic institutions involved in the electoral process carry out stock-taking or reflection on lessons learnt; it is the time when reforms are initiated and preparations commence for the next general elections. Most importantly, the post-election phase is when election dispute resolution (EDR) takes place.

Simply put, the ball is now in the court of election petition tribunals (EPTs) to effectively resolve and conclusively determine the party and candidates who won in some of the constituencies where disputes have arisen. It has been predicted that the EPTs may not be overwhelmed with petitions as was the situation after the 2007 general elections. The reason behind this optimism is due largely to the credibility of the just concluded elections as well as the emerging new political culture in Nigeria where losers now accept defeat and congratulate winners.

For instance, Governors Adebayo Alao-Akala of Oyo State; Gbenga Daniel of Ogun State; Mahmud Shinkafi of Zamfara State and Ikedi Ohakim of Imo State who are all members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) lost their governorship seat to opposition parties and still have the humility of accepting defeat and congratulating the winners. In fact the incumbent Speaker of the House of Representatives, Hon. Dimeji Bankole set the pace as gallant loser when he lost his re-election bid on April 9 and yet congratulated the winner. This is commendable and exemplary.

However, not every of the contestants have imbibed that spirit of sportsmanship. Some of the candidates who lost are at the election tribunals to seek redress. This too is laudable. It is better for the aggrieved to approach court or the tribunals to get justice than resort to self-help. The violence that greeted the announcement of the presidential election result from April 16 – 18 in some parts of the Northern Nigeria was needless, preposterous and fiendish. No matter the contention of the dissatisfied parties, they could simply have marshalled their evidences and approach the election tribunals for redress.

With the coming into force of the amended 1999 Constitution as well as the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), the election dispute resolution mechanism have been tinkered with and the new law will now be put to test starting from this month of May 2011 as the tribunals begin sitting. Under Nigeria’s electoral justice system, only the political parties and the candidates have locus (right) to challenge the outcome of elections. There are 63 registered political parties at present and over a thousand contestants for different parliamentary and executive positions across the country. Some of the innovations in the election dispute resolution procedures include: Minimum of two tribunals sitting in each state where governorship and parliamentary elections took place. According to section 285 (1) and (2) of the amended constitution, each state will have National and State Houses of Assembly Election Tribunals as well as Governorship Election Tribunals.

The sixth schedule has also been amended to reduce the number of judges in each tribunal from five to three (i.e. Chairman and two other members). According to section 285 (5) “An election petition shall be filed within 21 days after the date of the declaration of results of the elections” while subsection 6 says “An election tribunal shall deliver its judgement in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition”. Sub-section 7 says “An appeal from a decision of an election tribunal or Court of Appeal in an election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgement of the tribunal or Court of Appeal.” These alterations are fundamental as prior to now (with the exception of 1979-1983), there was no time limit for election petitions to be disposed off. These new procedures are part of the recommendations of the Electoral Reform Committee (ERC) led by Justice Mohammed Uwais. Even then, they are not far reaching as ERC had proposed the conclusion of election petitions before inauguration of the winners.

As the election petition tribunals commence sitting, my appeal to the privileged judges of the tribunals is for them to do substantial justice. They must be firm, fair, thorough and look at the merit of each case rather than striking out matters on technical ground. Concomitantly, they must be time conscious knowing full well that they have six months to deal with all the cases brought before them. Lawyers representing the plaintiff and the defendants should also give the tribunal judges full cooperation. They must refrain from filing frivolous applications and shun delay tactics. Politicians too must steer clear of the tribunal judges. They should not seek to compromise them in any way.

Independent National Electoral Commission must also give full cooperation to the election tribunals by supplying requested information and materials expeditiously. Resident Electoral Commissioners (REC) must realise that section 77 (1) and (2) of Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) has given them only 7 days to provide documents applied for by any political party to pursue its case at the tribunal, failure of which such REC risk fine of N2 million on conviction and / or 12 months imprisonment. Adequate protection must also be given to the judges, court premises and exhibits. Electoral justice is very key to the deepening of democratic process. Justice should not be delayed and must not only be done but must be seen to have been done.