By Simon Kolawole
In my experience of presidential elections in Nigeria, I must necessarily admit that 2023 is the most dramatic so far — and something tells me I have not seen anything yet. I am not talking about the drama of candidates winning or losing in unexpected places. That is lovely. That is what I live for as a journalist: looking out for the unusual event, the outlier, the against-the-grain stories. The more, the merrier. As journalism students, we were taught that the uniqueness of an event is the story. We were told “dog bites man” is no news, except the man is prominent, say a governor or celebrity. The real news is “man bites dog”, except, well, the man in question just had a “404” or “Lokili” delicacy.
The unusualness of the 2023 presidential election is no longer about man biting dog. Otherwise, I would be enjoying it in full. We are now in a dangerous, perhaps unprecedented phase, one I have never seen before, one that is capable of turning the country upside down. In an election season, there are issues at every stage: before, during and after voting. During pre-election, there are court cases, intra-party crises, accusations of planned rigging, etc. During the election, there are accusations and counter-accusations of rigging. Winners would say the election was free and fair while losers would call it the worst in history. All these have become dog-bites-man stories to me.
However, I think this is the first time I am witnessing a situation where election petitions are before the tribunal and the petitioners and their supporters are practically in the media daily arguing their case, mounting enormous pressure on the judiciary and trying to delegitimise the institution even before the tribunal starts sitting. Usually, dog bites man: petitioners wait for the judgement before making comments. If the judgment is favourable to them, Nigeria’s judiciary gets rated as the best in sub-Saharan Africa. If things go otherwise, the judiciary becomes the most corrupt in the world. But the entire Nigerian judiciary is already on a wheelchair when the petitions are yet to be argued.
I can understand the campaign that the final verdict should be given before the May 29 inauguration. There are fears that once a new president is sworn in, the tribunal is highly unlikely to unseat him. So, it is argued that for the sake of fair play, or level field, the litigation should be dispensed with before May 29. Can a tribunal nullify the election of a sitting president? It has never happened before in Nigeria, but that does not mean it can’t happen. Mr Peter Obi unseated a governor in 2006 by going through the judicial process. It was rare, the first in the third republic, but it happened. In 2017, Kenya’s presidential poll was annulled and a rerun ordered by the Supreme Court. It was a first.
Although many Nigerians want an expedited process, the laws have already stipulated the deadlines for the trial. Even after the petitions are determined by the tribunal, there is still a right of appeal to the Supreme Court. In my opinion, the speed of the trial will be determined by the complexity of the case. Some arguments look more straightforward than the others. For me, issues around an alleged criminal conviction, 25 percent requirement in federal capital territory, alleged double nomination, and the failure of the Independent National Electoral Commission to upload the result sheets of the presidential poll in real time to IReV should not be too complicated for the tribunal to decide.
But the core case of rigging is one that usually takes more time and energy. Lawyers to Obi, the Labour Party candidate, have listed 18,000 polling units (PUs) where they want to challenge the results. You would agree with me that 18,000 result sheets cannot be scrutinised in a hurry. This has mellowed my enthusiasm about a speedy trial. I am not holding my breath that this can be concluded, along with a possible appeal, before May 29. Examining 18,000 result sheets is no tea party. More so, the All Progressives Congress (APC) may also counter-sue and challenge results in some PUs. They too may want to scrutinise thousands of result sheets. Can this be fast-tracked?
Nonetheless, I support the campaign for a fast-tracked process, but we cannot hurry the judiciary. While it is said that justice delayed is justice denied, there is also an axiom that justice hurried is justice buried. We need a balance. My first choice, always, is for justice to be done as quickly as possible, preferably before May 29. But it is not my call. It is not our call. There is also a campaign for the proceedings to be televised live. While I would love this too, I do not think it will happen. Court proceedings are hardly televised live. I don’t know why. Ex-US President Donald Trump just appeared before a court in New York for a criminal trial. Only his entry into the courtroom was televised live.
While I am not worried about the campaigns for speedy trial and live telecast of the tribunal proceedings because these are legitimate and legal demands, I am deeply disturbed by comments that are injurious to the institutions of democracy. When a case is before a court of law, a litigant is not supposed to make comments that could be subjudice. It not only violates the ethics of the legal profession, it can actually be treated as contempt of court. A lawyer for one of the parties has written and distributed an article on the 25 percent requirement despite filing a petition. Arguments that should be canvassed in court are now being pushed in the media. It doesn’t sound right to me.
Dr Datti Baba-Ahmed, Obi’s vice-presidential candidate and a party to the election petition before the tribunal, was on TV the other day saying Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the legally recognised president-elect except otherwise declared by a court of law, should not be sworn in. He called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN) not to inaugurate him. He said Tinubu does not meet the constitutional requirement of scoring 25 percent in the federal capital and that his own interpretation is final and not subject to debate. I don’t think this is the right path. Why then did his party approach the election tribunal for justice? And why do we need the judiciary at all?
I recall that in 2007, President Olusegun Obasanjo did everything in the books to stop Vice-President Atiku Abubakar from succeeding him in office after they had a very public spat. The PDP did a membership revalidation exercise and weeded out Atiku’s core supporters. Atiku defected from the PDP and joined Tinubu’s Action Congress (AC), where he was given the presidential ticket. Obasanjo declared Atiku’s VP position vacant for defecting from the PDP but the courts overruled him. Obasanjo went ahead to set up a panel to indict Atiku on corruption charges and INEC quickly excluded him from the presidential election. The Supreme Court overruled Obasanjo and INEC.
I also need to make a point here: I have never heard Obi denigrate or intimidate the judiciary since he came into politics. He ran for governorship in Anambra in 2003. He believed it was rigged. He went to court. The PDP used all the tactics in the book to stretch the trial. He did not budge. It took three years but he got judgment and went on to govern Anambra state for eight years. When he was illegally impeached in 2006, he did not talk much. He went to the court and he was restored. When INEC tried to undermine him in 2007 by conducting an election when his tenure was still valid, he did not raise hell. He headed to the courts. He won. He never commented while the cases were ongoing.
That is why I find it disturbing that some leading lights in his camp are resorting to these tactics. Maybe Obi needs to have a word with them. I accept that Obi is no longer what he used to be — he has become a legend and some hardliners now surround him. However, for someone who has been a beneficiary of justice at a time Nigerians did not have much faith in the courts (for the record, only Obi won his petition in the 2003 governorship election), he is not being well served by those stirring up anti-judiciary sentiments at this critical juncture. In fact, some of his supporters have second-guessed the courts and concluded that Obi has already lost the election petition by unfair means.
You may call me naïve but I insist that the focus should be on the strength of the case before the tribunal and every party to the suit must give the judiciary a benefit of the doubt. We just have to trust the process. That is what we are left with, legally speaking. Or, if I may ask, if we do not trust the judiciary, what are the options? One lawyer suggested that Senate President Ahmad Lawan, a member of Tinubu’s APC, should act as president from May 29 until the election petition is concluded. Lawan recently benefited from a controversial Supreme Court decision on his candidacy. Some people are so emotional and desperate that they are not thinking before talking again.
Let us give democracy a chance. It has an in-built capacity to correct itself and grow organically. Our elections today are better than they were in 1999. For instance, in 2003, Obasanjo was suspiciously credited with 2,003,521 out of the 2,171,215 votes cast in Rivers state. Today, no candidate can claim two million votes in Rivers again. Think about that again and again. That is progress. Same 2003, Obasanjo (PDP) got 1,360,170 votes from Ogun state. Otunba Gbenga Daniel (also PDP) won governorship but with just 449,335 of 681,317 votes. Both elections were held simultaneously, with each voter given the two ballot papers. Yet, Obasanjo managed to poll 910,000 more than Daniel.
What is my point? We should not seek to damage our democracy by delegitimising its institutions because of their failings. We should allow the process to cleanse itself. Since 1999, people have been losing elections and seeking redress constitutionally and some have won their cases based on merit. Obi is a living example. Let us keep the faith. Let us trust the process. Those angling for an interim government or military involvement are canvassing things not known to our laws. It may sound sexy today, but so did it appear when some activists were asking Gen Sani Abacha to take over power in 1993. We paid the price for years and I am not even sure we have stopped writhing in the pains.
By and large, this post-election circus around the judiciary needs to either end or be toned down drastically. People are free to protest or counter-protest as they like. People can write to President Joe Biden or Prime Minister Rishi Khan if that is their understanding of promoting electoral justice. No law is being violated that way. What we should discourage is the denigration or intimidation of the judiciary because we desire a particular outcome. There is no way this democracy can grow when those who know the laws and the processes resort to subtle blackmail just to have their way. Let the petitions be judged by the strength of legal arguments, not the intensity of media campaign. Please.
Culled from TheCable