Election actions is over, real governance should commence
For understandable reasons, the caustic reactions of two major contenders to the country’s presidency, namely Atiku Abubakar, and Peter Obi, to the judgment of the court against their contention are predictable. Their battle, using available legal channels, is hard fought, based on their convictions that they, rather than President Bola Tinubu, won the presidential election of February 25, 2023; contrary to the declaration of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Although most elections in Nigeria since 1999 have been fraught with complaints of malpractices and irregularities that occasioned legal disputes, often to the nation’s highest court, none perhaps has been more contentious and tendentious than this year’s February 25 presidential election. Most Nigerians, therefore, heaved a deep sigh of relief when the Supreme Court finally laid the grievances to rest, upholding the September 6, 2023, decision of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, which affirmed that President Tinubu was rightly declared the winner; that the complaints against the declaration were not substantiated, and therefore had no merit.
Abubakar, who contested under the aegis of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Obi of the Labour Party (LP) and the Allied Peoples Movement (APM) must be recognised as stakeholders, who not only played the political game according to the rules, but also, by pursuing their grievances through the judicial channels approved by law, demonstrated their commitment to growing democracy in the country. They could have conducted themselves in ways that endanger the peace and tranquility of the country, but they stayed with due process until the end.
Instructively, the hearing of the complaints at the court of first instance, the Court of Appeal, was closely monitored and, even before the judgment was pronounced, many Nigerians saw themselves as part of the decision process, and practically wrote their own versions of judgments, perhaps with a view to influencing the official outcome. The period was laced with high tension, and the judiciary was put on trial. Issues raised by the petitioners against Tinubu included his failure to secure 25 per cent of votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), his forfeiture of $460,000 in the U.S., his academic records alleged to have been forged and his non-qualification due to the double nomination of his running mate, Kashim Shettima. The petitioners also challenged the failure of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to transmit election results electronically.
When their Lordships delivered the verdict, it took an unprecedented 12 hours, with five justices unanimously holding that in law and in fact, the petitioners failed to justify their complaints; they erred in thinking that Tinubu’s failure to earn 25 per cent of the votes in the FCT was fatal to his declared victory; they also erred in holding that the failure of INEC to transmit the election’s result electronically was defective constitutionally and by provisions of the Electoral Act; and that they failed the legal test of proving that Tinubu was not qualified to contest the election or was criminally liable, among other salient issues. No doubt, the judges were fully conscious of the “all eyes on the judiciary”, and were determined to painstakingly address even the minute points of the petition. If listening to the judgment for 12 hours tasked Nigerians, it certainly tasked the judges who delivered it more.
Following the endorsement of the judgment by the Supreme Court (unanimous verdict by seven justices of the court) on October 26, 2023, the anxiety over the election should be over both for the winner and the losers. It is time for governance. The apex court held that Section 185(1) of the Evidence Act provided that an election should not be liable to be invalidated, when alleged non compliance did not substantially affect the outcome of an election.
It held that evidence contained in the record of the appeal showed that the Appellants abandoned the duty imposed on them by the law to not only prove the alleged non compliance, but to establish that failure of INEC to transmit results of the election through its IReV portal, influenced the outcome of the presidential poll. The Supreme Court said it had in past judgments, made it clear that there was a difference between election result collation system and the IReV portal. “Where the IReV portal fails, it does not stop the collation which up till the last election was manually done,” the court held.
Reacting, Abubakar, a former Vice President said, “We should make constitutional amendments where we will prevent any court or tribunal from hiding behind technicalities to confirm electoral hates and undermine the will of the people. Our democracy must mean something. It must be substantive, and above all it must be done through free, fair and transparent elections, and must respect the will of the people.” He made reference to the Supreme Court’s admonition that “the non-transmission of results to the IReV portal may also reduce the confidence of the voting population in the electoral process.”
On his part, Obi declared: “This judgment amounts to a total breach of the confidence the Nigerian people have in our judiciary. To that extent, it is a show of unreasonable force against the very Nigerian people from whom the power of the Constitution derives. This Supreme Court ruling may represent the state of the law in 2023 but not the present demand for substantive justice.”
No doubt, it would take some time for the wounds of the election to be healed. The lessons are legion that rightly or wrongly, there is a huge perception of a deficient electoral system in the country, which is consequently throwing up so many complaints, grievances and deep suspicion against even the judicial channel designed for resolution of the disputes. While a perfect system may not be easily attainable – and it is even then subject to the spirit of politicians to eschew a life and death attitude to elections – the country’s electoral system can do with some modifications.
Top of these is the need for use of technology in all facets of the election, particularly the transmission of result, to leave no room for real or imagined manipulation. The Supreme Court has emphasized this in its judgment when it stressed that INEC’s failure to electronically transmit results of the election, denied the electorates the opportunity to follow and cross-check results that were eventually uploaded.
Some of Atiku Abubakar’s suggestions are also relevant to improve on the process. For instance, it is important that declared winners of the election are not sworn in before petitions on the election are resolved, else it would appear that the parties are not operating in a level playing field; and the winner is put in a vantage position perhaps to influence the outcome of court process. Also, the timeframe for disposing of petitions should be shorter, even if it means aggregating the jurisdictions of the courts such that the Supreme Court hears presidential elections petitions as a court of first instance. This may be applicable also to governorship elections.
As an umpire, INEC needs to be unbundled. Its work is too much for a single entity; and that is why the commission has been ineffective in prosecuting election offenders for instance, despite the comprehensive provisions of the Electoral Act on what constitutes electoral offences and sanctions for the culprits. It is equally important to put in place mechanisms to exclude politicians from its membership in all spheres, including Resident Electoral Commissioners.
Lessons of the elections and matters arising on the petitions are essential for candidates, aspirants, political parties, lawyers and judges; and of course INEC. The lessons need to be properly dissected and made to improve the credibility of elections and processes. For INEC, the commission cannot afford to take decisions casually and expect Nigerians to endorse them simplicita. No sacrifice is too much to ensure transparency. Election petitioners must recognise the uphill task of not only proving non-compliance with law, but also in showing that such omissions indeed deprived them of their aspirations. Political parties, through their agents can do with technology too to document the progression of their candidates in the course of the elections and collation of results.
For Tinubu, who as a camel, has practically passed through the eye of the needle in the past eight months, there can be no excuse for failure to fix the country politically, economically and socially. Even providence will not forgive him if he wastes the opportunity at his disposal. For a start, he should review the huge expenditure of the N2.17 trillion supplementary budget he just signed into law despite public outcry. Most of the items in the proposal are completely in dissonance with the country’s current realities.