Outcomes of the last general elections and unprecedented flurry of election petitions have heightened credibility doubts of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) ability to conduct a free, fair and credible election.
Although the trend of ‘election by court order’ has continued since the return of civil rule in 1999, disputed election outcomes waiting for judicial resolution in this year’s polls are alarming.
For instance, a total of 1,280 political offices were contested in 2023, comprising the office of the presidency, 109 members of the Senate, 360 seats for the Federal House of Representatives, 782 House of Assembly seats across 28 states of the federation and 28 governorship positions.
Out of the total figure, 1,209 petitions are before the judiciary for adjudication, according to the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Monica Dongban-mensem during the ceremony to commence the 2023/2024 legal year in Abuja, representing a whopping 94.453 per cent of the positions where votes were cast.
The implication is that the electorate have less say about who becomes their leader, as that responsibility has substantially been shifted to the judiciary.
As it is, only 71 offices are truly decided by the citizens, representing a paltry 5.547 per cent of the offices contested.
According to the human rights lawyer, Prof. Chidi Odinkalu, these statistics confirm that the 2023 elections rival that of 2007 in infamy, despite the amendments to the Electoral Act and promises by the electoral umpire to improve the process.
“By contrast, 2015 was the first time that Nigeria’s presidential election did not end up in court, reflecting the consensus that the elections of that year were relatively well organised with results that largely reflected the will of the people.
“It was also the first time that the proportion of elections ending up in courts was less than 50 per cent (663 petitions or 44.32 per cent). The 2019 elections produced 766 petitions (51.2 per cent), roughly the same number as the 769 (51.4 per cent) seen in 2011,” he pointed out.
Considering the clogged dockets of the judiciary in Nigeria, Justice Dongban-Mensem stated that the court delivered 7,295 judgments and 3,665 motions in the 2022/2023 legal year, adding that it could have done more, but for the electoral dispute interregnum.
She added that 98 panels were constituted to hear the 1,209 election petitions nationwide.
Five of them, she said, were filed and concluded at the Presidential Election Petition Court, while 147 filed at the senatorial election tribunal have been delivered and 417 petitions from the House of Representatives are being attended to.
The PCA also said 557 petitions associated with State Houses of Assembly and 83 gubernatorial complaints are being disposed of, adding that 28 states participated in the governorship elections, with petitions filed in 24 of them.
The figures excluded the pre-election disputes, which most of them terminated at the apex court.
Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, during the new legal year speech, acknowledged the pressure political cases are mounting on the judiciary due to the timeline attached to their determination.
He said: “I want to specifically appreciate and acknowledge my brother Justices who have delivered 272 judgments in the normal civil, criminal and election related Appeals under immense pressure.
Last November, the chairman of INEC, Mahmood Yakubu, lamented that the Commission was handling over 600 pre-election cases in several courts across the federation during a capacity-building workshop for over 300 judges that would handle election disputes.
He revealed that the cases pending against the electoral body relate to the conduct of primaries by political parties, meaning that now that the elections are over, the cases have risen, such that INEC will be contending with about 1,209 cases, since litigants usually join the Commission in their petitions.
Aware of the litigious culture, INEC in its Election Project Plan for the 2023 general election earmarked N3 billion of tax-payers money to defend election-related disputes in court.
However, stakeholders are blaming INEC, lawyers and the politicians for subletting the right to choose political leadership to the judiciary, warning that if the trend is not checked, it will get to a point where there will be no need to organise any election.
Lagos lawyer, Bankole Kayode, believes that politicians are majorly to be blamed.
According to him, politicians are afraid to lose elections because the consequences of their electoral defeat are quite heavy.
“They instantly become abandoned and deserted by their supporters in addition to the loss of the heavy money and resources they deploy to the failed election venture, therefore, they become worse than someone infected with leprosy.
“The next thing they resort to, to avoid being deserted is to give false hope to their supporters that the courts will restore to them their ‘stolen mandate’ and hence the high rate of litigation we see all over,” he said, adding that many lawyers who ought to discourage frivolous litigations by appropriately advising their clients will rather cash in on the situation to make a fortune out of the desperate losers of the elections by rushing to courts in spite of the poor chances of success.
“I think lawyers should act more circumspectly by giving good advice to the politicians as to their chances in court after they have lost elections,” he advised.
Kayode also blamed top INEC officials who come to the public space to mislead the people about the true state of our electoral laws and their capacity to deliver.
During the preparation for the last election, he noted, a top INEC official was all over the media misleading the politicians and the electorates that Irev and other electronic devices would be compulsorily deployed as ‘prescribed by the electoral laws and guidelines’.
“He was singing it all over that INEC result viewing (Irev) portal was ‘the game changer’ which will eliminate all electoral malpractices, whereas, though a lawyer himself, he was talking in crass ignorance of the provisions of the electoral laws when compared with the subsequent court decisions.
“So, INEC officials should engage law experts to enlighten them on the provisions of our electoral laws so that they in turn will correctly enlighten the politicians and the electorates about the true state of the electoral laws, because nothing is wrong with the electoral laws,” he declared.
Also, Stephen Azubuike, lawyer and author, said a bigger portion of the blame pie goes to INEC.
His words: “When elections are fraught with much evidence of procedural and process anomalies, the candidates will be too aggrieved to let go.
“Of course, Nigerian politicians see elections as a do-or-die affair and will do everything possible until it is considered over. This means that so long as the courts are there, politicians consider the courtrooms as an extension of the polling units where they hope to make another attempt to win.
“Therefore, I don’t see the courts being let alone any time soon even if INEC performs at its best. Interestingly, electoral law can hardly be used to deny any candidate access to courts. It may be viewed as a denial of fundamental rights.”
He called for further reforms, starting with INEC.
Blaming politicians for being bad sportsmen, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Chief Yomi Alliyu lamented that they are sometimes deceived by the rented crowd and the money they spent on adverts.
He regretted that few men and women on the bench get to decide who occupies political office for the electorate.
Alliyu said: “It is unfortunate that at times the wishes of the people are decided by 13 people or at most 17 if you consider three judges of the Tribunal, five for the Court of Appeal and five at the Supreme Court. It is 17 for presidential election petitions comprising five at the Court of Appeal and seven at the Supreme Court!
“However, there is nothing anybody can do about this since it is what ‘we the people’ agreed to in our Constitution. We have submitted our adjudicatory power to those arbiters, and they are deemed to be the voice of all of us. This is far better than anarchy.”
The Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Legalpedia, Emeka Albert, fingered INEC as the problem.
“The body is far from being independent and lacks a sense of responsibility or accountability. When the umpire is confused, there are no rules and the game becomes a huge joke,” he quipped.
For law teacher and advocate, Prof Ernest Ojukwu (SAN), Nigeria has imbibed the culture of dishonesty as a way of life, which impacts on the people and institutions.
According to him, the blame goes to the Nigerian in INEC, the Nigerian in politicians and the Nigerian in our leaders, as well as the Nigerian in the electorate, who have all accepted the culture of dishonesty.
“We cannot forestall the trend of massive electoral disputes when our elections are mainly based on dishonesty. Most electoral disputes happen because we do not trust the process and the result of our elections, and we do not trust the umpire who largely takes sides in this culture of dishonesty.
“Until we begin to focus on the character of the Nigerian, and raise a new army of humans with integrity, our elections will never be free and fair,” he declared.
Human rights lawyer, Festus Ogun believes INEC shares the bigger part of the blame. The election, he insisted, was poorly conducted.
According to him, it was not credible. “With that, even those who clearly lost the election would believe they should be declared winner because of the inefficiency of INEC.
“And they are right because what INEC declared as valid votes sometimes get nullified as invalid votes by the Tribunals. So, because people generally lack faith in the electoral system, which is justified, their last hope is the Tribunal,” he said, suggesting that the solution would be to have a truly independent, efficient and effective electoral system.
Efforts to know how INEC feels about the barrage of litigations and their implication for the electoral process, were unsuccessful as its National Commissioner & Chairman, Information and Voter Education Committee, Sam Olumekun did not pick calls placed on his phone or respond to messages as at press time.