Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Tribunal judges should do the right thing!


Jide Ojo
“You must listen attentively and enquire appropriately, taking care not to descend into the arena. In addition, it is crucial that you consider all the evidence before you carefully, deliberate conscientiously, and adjudicate swiftly and justly as not only you but the entire judiciary will also be on trial
—Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, at the inauguration of 242 election tribunal judges on February 3, 2015.
Do you know that the 2015 general elections are not technically over yet? How do I mean? Yes, the Independent National Electoral Commission may have done its bit by conducting elections into the various political offices ranging from that of the president, governors, Senate, House of Representatives and the state Houses of Assembly, however, both the political parties and their candidates have the locus standi to challenge the outcome of the polls. The constitution of Nigeria confers the right on them to ventilate their grievances and seek redress at the election petitions tribunals. The constitution in the Sixth Schedule 1 (3) and 2(3) states that the Chairman and other members of the election petitions tribunals shall be appointed by the President of the Court of Appeal in consultation with the Chief Judge of the State, the Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the state or the President of the Customary Court of Appeal of the state, as the case may be.
Election Dispute Resolution has been part of our jurisprudence and it is a form of checks and balance on the activities of the executive arm whose agency, INEC, conducts the elections. In an electoral process, the three arms of government play different roles. The National Assembly designs the legal framework for the elections through constitution amendments as well as the passage of the enabling Electoral Act. The President which represents the executive arm has to assent to the bills while INEC which is also under the Presidency conducts the polls. The judiciary adjudicates on election disputes be it pre-election matters such as those arising from the candidate nomination process (party primaries) or Election Day issues.
We are now at the post-election phase and this period is as important as when the polls were conducted. It needs be understood that only the election tribunals can review and reverse what the INEC Returning Officers have declared. There was no time that the importance of election tribunals was felt in our 93 years of electoral democracy (since 1922) than in the lead up to and even after the 2007 general elections. There were a number of locus classicus decisions made during that era by Nigerian courts, especially the Supreme Court. It will be recalled that five days to the April 2007 presidential election, the Supreme Court ruled that former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, having been lawfully nominated by his political party, the Action Congress, had been unlawfully excluded by the INEC on the grounds of a dubious indictment by an administrative panel of inquiry set up by ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo who then had also unilaterally declared the VP’s office vacant because he defected from the Peoples Democratic Party to the AC. The Supreme Court ruled that the VP should be put on the ballot and INEC had to reprint about 65 million presidential ballot papers less than a week to the polls.
Other notable court and election tribunal decisions led to the retrieval of the stolen mandate of former Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State, ex-Governor Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State, Governor Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State, Governor Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State, and Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State. That Chibuike Amaechi of Rivers State was sworn in as governor without contesting or campaigning in the governorship election of 2007 was made possible by the Supreme Court which set aside his substitution and disqualification by the PDP after contesting and winning the party’s governorship primaries in December 2006. Today, by virtue of courts and tribunals decisions, we now have off-cycle governorship elections in seven states namely Kogi, Bayelsa, Ekiti, Anambra, Edo, Osun and Ondo states. But for the judiciary that gave correct interpretations of the intendment of Section 180 of the Nigerian Constitution, some unscrupulous governors were living under the assumption that their tenure starts to count from the date they were sworn in after an election tribunal ordered re-run elections and not when they were first sworn in after their disputed elections.
Before the 2010 constitution and Electoral Act amendments which now reformed the election dispute resolution procedures, there used to be five members in each of the tribunals while there was no timelines for resolving the disputes. All that has changed. Due to paucity of judges, the relevant portion of the constitution has been reviewed to limit the number of EPT members to chairman and two others judges. The timeline for filing of petitions is also now pegged at 21 days after election result declarations (Section 134 of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended) while the tribunals have a maximum of 180 days to adjudicate on the matter (Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution as amended in 2010 as well as Section 134 (2) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended), 60 days each is set aside for appeals at the appellate courts.
As the aggrieved political parties and candidates troop to the election tribunals to seek redress on their electoral losses, it is important to sound these notes of warning and admonish our judicial officers on the need for them to act right. Having worked closely with the Office of the President of the Court of Appeal in my former employment, I do know of the daunting challenges before tribunal judges and their coordinator which is the Office of the President of the Court of Appeal. I do know of the paucity of funds to give the best welfare for the judges; I know of the many malicious and unfounded petitions usually sent to the President of Court of Appeal seeking removal of some members or disbandment of some panels by some desperate politicians and their legal teams. I also do know of the threats to the lives of these honourable men and women who would have to leave their comfort zones – states, courts and families to go on national assignments in a totally unfamiliar environment. I am also not ignorant of the inducements some desperate politicians usually dangle before them in order to procure judicial victories. I want to enjoin them to shun such entreaties and perform their duties professionally, conscientiously and with the fear of God. I know it is not a mean task but they should strive to dispense justice and not judgment. They should not dwell on technicalities but the merits of the petitions brought before them. They should not allow lawyers, particularly the senior ones, to intimidate them but should be in firm control of their tribunals. I need not remind them that the alternative to justice is anarchy and self-help is one thing we do not want the aggrieved to resort to. Best wishes.
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