As 2019 electoral contests shift to courts…

Following the successful conduct of the 2019 general elections by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the contest to
occupy elective political offices in the country has shifted from the ballot
stage to the courts, in cases of electoral disputes. The resort to the courts to challenge results of elections are within the ambit of democratic tenets and
the rule of law as encapsulated in Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution
(as amended).

However, despite the relatively hitch-free and peaceful conduct of the elections, which were adjudged free, fair and transparent, it does appear
that the number of petitions challenging various results of the 2019 general
elections are surprisingly high. The number of 2019 election petitions
stood at 766 as at April 16.

The Deputy Chief Registrar, Election Petitions Tribunal, Court of
Appeal headquarters in Abuja, Mrs Rabi Abdulazeez, said last week that the number of petitions filed by politicians and their parties had risen
to 766 as of April 16. She said that 77 election petitions tribunal panels had been set up by the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab
Adamu Bulkachuwa, to hear the matters.

The data released by Abdulazeez showed that the presidential election petitions remained four in number as it was in the earlier summary of
records made public on April 4. The number of House of Representatives’
election disputes also remained 101. But the senatorial election petitions
have increased by two – from the April 4 status of 205 to 207, as of April 16.
The breakdown of the petitions filed so far as released by the Court of
Appeal last week is as follows: House of Representatives election, 101;
Senate, 205; governorship, 54; state House of Assembly, 402; while
Presidential poll has four.

The four presidential election petitions were filed to challenge the victory
of President Muhammadu Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the April 23 poll. They included the one filed on
March 18 by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate,
Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and marked CA/PEPC/002/2019.

Another of the petitions was filed on March 7, by the Hope Democratic
Party (HDP) and its National Chairman and presidential candidate, Chief Ambrose Owuru. The other petition with number CA/PEPC/004/2019
filed on March 19, was by Pastor Aminchi Habu and his party, the Peoples
Democratic Movement (PDM) .

The fourth petition was filed by Geff Ojinika and the Coalition for
Change, who both contended that “the election was vitiated by substantial
non-compliance with mandatory statutory provisions which irregularity substantially affected the election such that the 1st respondent (Buhari)
was not entitled to be returned as the winner of the presidential election.” The petitioners all joined INEC, Buhari and the APC as respondents.
But the Coalition for Change and Ojinika added Vice-President Yemi
Osinbajo to their list of respondents.

This situation is indeed a healthy development as it has the potency of
not only enhancing the evolution of our democracy but also enriching our jurisprudence. The snag, however, is whether the politicians will
observe decorum and avoid over-heating the polity before, during and
after the court processes as witnessed during the elections proper.

Understandably, the apprehension as to whether the tribunals will dispense justice without let or hindrance has been allayed by the Acting
Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko. Inaugurating 250 judges for the 2019 National Assembly, Governorship and State Assembly
Election Petition Tribunals, his first official assignment, on January 26,
2019, Tanko called on judges to stand up and protect the integrity of the
judiciary which was passing through trying times.

After administering the oath of office on members of the election
tribunals, the acting CJN, who was accompanied by Justice Sidi Baje, admonished them to discharge their duties diligently and with the fear
of God.
“The judiciary is in trying time, you must stand to protect and uphold
the integrity of this arm of government. I, therefore, congratulate you on this appointment and I urge you to see this assignment as a call to greater
service to your nation,” Tanko said.

The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa,
was more poignant when she warned that the court will not hesitate to deal decisively with any chairman or member of the Election Petitions
Tribunal found wanting in the discharge of his or her duties.
Bulkachuwa maintained that the judiciary plays a crucial role in sustaining the nation’s democracy, hence the judges should be thorough
and professional in deciding election issues brought before them.

Speaking at the induction programme for justices of the Court of
Appeal, chairmen and members of the Election Petitions Tribunals, she warned the judges to avoid the temptation of taking sides through
the granting of frivolous and unnecessary adjournments, adding that
her office would pay close attention to the proceedings of the various tribunals.
We commend all the major stakeholders in our electoral process, namely, INEC, political parties and their candidates, particularly the
ruling APC’s President Buhari and the main opposition PDP’s Atiku, election observers, the electorate, and civil society organisations for
keeping the peace in spite of perceived misgivings. Now that the ball
is in the court of the judiciary, we expect that the status quo will be maintained by the impartiality of the judges.

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