In his reaction to the howl of painful protests over the war that passed for the conduct of the Kogi governorship election on November 16, President Muhammadu Buhari told those who did not accept the results to go to court. It was a gratuitous presidential advice. But it carried with it the arrogance of those who first breast the tape in our elections. We did not hear that for the first time.
The path to justice snakes through the labyrinth of the judicial process. But justice is sometimes lost in that labyrinth. And political justice displaces legal justice.
In his study of what he calls “Evidential Imperatives in Election Petitions in Nigeria,” E.Q. Okolie writes: “Petition is the only viable …alternative open to any persons or party dissatisfied with the conduct of an election under our laws to ventilate his or her grievances.”
Hundreds of our country men and women have trodden that alternative path to alternative justice since the generals introduced the election petitions and election tribunals in 1979. The results have either been at best mixed or at worst, disappointing, thus taxing our faith in the capacity of the judiciary to right wrongs committed in both the electoral process and the elections. Still, it is the civilised path the aggrieved have always chosen to contest the lemons delivered to them by the electoral umpire in the sincere hope that the judiciary would help them turn the lemons into lemonade. Hope is an elusive thing.
Buhari himself was on that path three times in his quest to become president as a convert to democracy – 2003, 2007 and 2011. I am not too sure that he had a good experience in the search for justice in the courts. The courts are overwhelmed with hundreds of petitions after every election. This year’s general elections took the number of petitions right up to the thousand mark. According to Mohammed Haruna, INEC national commissioner in charge of Niger, Kogi and Nasarawa states, there were 1,689 cases arising from the 2019 general elections.
Of this number, 890 were pre-election cases and 799 were petitions disputing the election results from the presidential election down to the houses of assembly elections. These figures must be higher now with cases that have either risen or would arise from the Kogi and Bayelsa governorship elections of last month.
These cases must not be held up as evidence that the culture of good winners and good losers is still floating in the air in our country. Nigerians are not bad losers who love to give frivolity the sound of good sense. The cynical attitude has served the singular purpose of helping us take some somnolent comfort in living a lie.
It should be possible for us at this point in our political development to rein in our cynicism and accept that we have some fundamental problems with a) the nature of our party politics and b) an electoral system effectively shackled by the actors who respect no rules and do not play by the rules. Call them dictators in the garb of faux democrats.
We have problems with the political parties; we have problems with the electoral umpire and we have problems in the temple of justice. These problems take something away from the integrity, the credibility and the acceptance of our elections. I cannot say it loudly enough: if we do not get our elections right we cannot deepen our democracy and every election would be a war fought with deadly arsenals.
Haruna said, and quite rightly, that “the pre-election cases indicated that political parties needed to get their acts together in order to deepen the nation’s democratic process.” The political parties fly the flags of democracy. But they are not democratic and therefore not able and willing to promote best practices in democracy in our dear country. They are ruled by pocket dictators with bad attitudes.
Former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar cried himself hoarse over the lack of internal democracy in the PDP. No one listened to him. No attempts were made to pull the party back from the brink to which its leaders had pushed it. The dictatorial and undemocratic decisions and actions by its leaders brought down the party. It failed to rule the country for 60 years in the first instance. Africa must be mourning the comatose state of its biggest political party.
Still, no one has learnt any lessons from the PDP debacle. The APC party moguls are treading the same path, enjoying the perks and the privileges of power and caring little for the critical task of freeing our democracy from the shackles of their own making. No surprise there. The same former PDP moguls are mostly the APC moguls today. Habits die hard, I tell you.
The election petitions have become an embarrassing feature of our national elections. They drag through the courts almost for ever, thus denying the justice people seek. In 2003, Buhari said he spent 18 months in the courts over his election petition. Some other politicians had fared much worse while those who stole their mandate sat pretty in the national and state legislatures, thanks to the tardiness of the judiciary.
The temple of justice ought to provide succour to those openly and arrogantly wronged by the system in our elections. It is not that simple. Here is a possible reason offered by Okoi Ofem Obono-Obla, former presidential aide to Buhari. He recently published his interesting take on “Conflict judgements of appellate courts in election litigations in Nigeria.”
He wrote: “In recent times consistency and certainty which are the cornerstones of the legal system hinged on judicial precedent appears to have been fast eroded especially in election litigations in the country, so much so that it appears that the judiciary rather than playing its time long traditional constitutional role of being an interpreter of the law and an instrument of conflict resolution is rather seen as the harbinger of anarchy and confusion.”
When the judiciary speaks from both sides of the mouth justice is forced to redefine itself according to either side of the mouth. It is no way to go. While our leaders claim to wish the best for the country, they believe that tolerating the worst is just a game peculiar to the nature of politics and political leadership.
I believe Buhari is in a very good position now to clean up the system, reposition our electoral system, make us for ever proud of our elections and leave a shining legacy that would never rust. Since the government hates the word revolution let us suggest that the president should commit to the radicalisation of our electoral system between now and 2023. This period gives him the window he needs, provided he remains deaf to the stupid chants of third term.
These are what I suggest he could do.
One, we need a primary custodian for our electoral system. We have none now. The amendments to the Electoral Act 2010 effectively removed INEC from playing that role. That power should be given back to the commission. It should be its primary responsibility to qualify all aspirants to elective public offices. It is not right that the political parties should be given the right to act as the primary custodians of our electoral process. Much of the mess we see in the system results from the power conferred on the party leaders by this primitive practice.
Two, to quote ThisDay editorial, “INEC must take responsibility for the conduct of election(s) and should be required by law to prove that the election it conducted was free and fair and complied with extant laws.”
It should not be the responsibility of a petitioner in an election case to prove he won. That onus should rest on INEC and the respondent as recommended by the Uwais’ committee report. It is wrong to make the petitioner bear this burden because the commission is not bound to defend itself. This is fatal to a petitioner’s case.
Three, three times the eighth senate passed the amendments to the Electoral Act and three times the president refused to sign it into law. He thus denied the country the right to assume its rightful position among civilised nations that have gone totally digital in their electoral system and elections. This is not just wrong. It is pathetic. Nigeria cannot expect to make progress if it remains tied in certain areas of its development to a medieval millstone. The president’s enemies are no longer in the senate to share the credit with him for a better and more modern Electoral Act. Let him sign the bill into law and empower INEC to begin the preparation for putting its house in order.
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