Government of the people, for the people and by the by people is the phraseology often cited in summary for the system of government that we have decided to practice in Nigeria, called Democracy. It allows participants to ventilate their opinions by exercising their fundamental Freedom of Expression, guaranteed by the Constitution, such that the election Petitioners were able to do so at the Court of Appeal, which sat over the last 180 days to consider petitions challenging the declaration by INEC that the candidate(s) of the All Peoples Congress (APC) won the 25th February 2023 Presidential Elections as President and Vice-President.
In an extensive televised LIVE broadcast, the good people of Nigeria and the whole world by extension had opportunity to absorb the judgement from the Presidential Elections Petition Tribunal (PEPT) sitting at the Court of Appeal in Abuja, the nation’s capital. The judgment was delivered by the 5 Justices in a unanimous decision that lasted more than 12 hours and sought to exhaust all the points that were brought by the Petitioners, which were consolidated into three petitions presented by three different political parties namely – Allied Peoples Movement (APM); Labour Party (LP); and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP).
Now that the verdict has been delivered by the Tribunal, you can be certain that political analysts; social commentators; Civil Society Organisations (CSO); political party bigwigs; loyalists & fanatics; social-media influencers and operatives; armchair analysts and indeed our humbly selves at LeadiFollow will posit observations on the Tribunals decisions, regardless the fact that some of the parties will most certainly march towards the Supreme Court to exhaust the full ambit of their fundamental rights enshrined in the democratic institutional practice. It is likely that the debates will continue for the next 60 days or so, when the time limit for concluding the matter would have elapsed in the higher court of finality. Citizens should however be very weary of what you read and listen to as the dust begins to settle from the reverberations created by the Court of Appeal guillotine.
Indeed, in the last few days the presidential candidate of the PDP, Atiku Abubakar has approached the Supreme Court stating 35 grounds of challenge; while the Labour Party presidential candidate, Peter Obi has stated 51 grounds of appeal against the decision of the PEPT. Their appeals have been filed on time so that will not be an issue, but the pertinent question is whether or not the Supreme Court will agree with the Appellants that the lower court erred in law on any of the points in further contention.
Depending on which side of the divide you are sitting, your opinion about whether or not justice was served is probably as divided as the contentions between night and day; black and white; or light and darkness. But while the argument rages on between the political juggernauts who continue to be at loggerheads, LeadiFollow contends that there are several beneficial nuggets that we all can contemplate, digest and implement, which will undoubtedly strengthen the foundations of our jurisprudence and democratic engagement as a people and a nation moving forward.
Firstly, the judgment is a post-litigation pronouncement by the Judiciary, either affirming the Declaration made by INEC or otherwise overturning it. Whatever the final outcome at the Supreme Court, this whole legal exercise; as expensive, daunting and laborious as it may seem; will serve to legitimize the current administration and/or any that may be subsequently ordered by the Supreme Court. That is an important by-product, despite the fact it has come at huge cost. Even though there are conflicting views about who actually won the 25th February 2023 Presidential elections, those contentions will eventually be laid to rest when the final verdict is given by the Supreme Court and all concerned will have no other option but to accept the outcome.
Secondly and closely related to the first point is the obvious fact that some constitutional matters and interpretations which may have been vague before they were brought before the Tribunal have now been demystified and given further clarity, even though the rulings may not have 100% acceptability. Whilst it is the duty of parliament to make laws, from time to time, whenever there is a dispute regarding interpretation the judiciary needs to wade into the discussion to provide clarity. Jurisprudence often referred to as the “philosophy of the law”, is the “study, knowledge, or science of law” and it is built up in part from decisions made by judges in various courts and tribunals. While the cynics may opine that it is a waste of time in actual fact the nation’s reservoir of jurisprudence is being expanded.
Thirdly, a key contention arising from the presidential election is the status of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) in respect of the requirement of a candidate to obtain at least 25% of the votes cast in addition to getting at least 25% of the votes in at least 24 out of 36 of the states of the federation. The PEPT has ruled that FCT does not have a special status and for this purpose it is to be treated as if it was a state, in other words like one out of 37 federating units rather than 36 clearly stated in the Constitution. Those still pushing the case for an alternative interpretation offered that since the seat of the presidency is in the FCT, a candidate ought to attain at least 25% of the votes, but we don’t buy that argument otherwise an additional burden would be introduced into state capital requirements for Governors at the sub-national level. Some of these erroneous postulations have far-reaching implications than the authors care to fathom.
Fourthly, the transmission of results by INEC was the subject of litigation arising from changes brought in by the Electoral Act 2022 and in particular the decision by the electoral umpire, INEC, to introduce technology into the process of conducting the elections with the inclusion of the BVAS and IREV machines for the accreditation of voters and the transmission of results. You will recall that INEC claimed that a “glitch” had made it impossible for real-time upload of the presidential results, which the Petitioners claim was deliberate and commissioned for the purpose of manipulating the figures. The PEPT has however ruled that it is not mandatory, within the dictates of the law, for INEC to transmit results electronically and real -time, even though they had promised they were going to do, in accordance with the Guidelines they produced.
Fifthly, the judgment of the PEPT gave clear interpretation to those things that could amount to a disqualifying condition with regards to being an eligible candidate. Whilst the Constitution expressly bars a person who has been prosecuted by a competent court of jurisdiction, and where having been found guilty received a sentence, or a fine, the PEPT (Tribunal) has held that it must be in respect of criminal proceedings for the sanction to apply, particularly in relation to a fine.
Sixthly, the PEPT re-affirmed the already held view that election litigation is a front-loaded exercise and therefore a Petitioner must present his case in full at the beginning of proceedings thereby removing elements of speculation and ambush. If a petitioner does not have and present a rock solid case at an election tribunal, it is most likely to be struck out. The Petition must from the outset, outline the fundamental issues disputed and state without ambiguity the evidence they will rely upon to prove their petition. The procedures that parties must follow together with stipulated timelines, are clearly stated in the laws and rules that govern the conduct of proceedings when litigation commences at the Tribunal. Failure to adhere strictly to the rules and procedures will inevitably jeopardize the chances of a petition succeeding.
Lastly, for sake of brevity, we submit that the detailed judgment, which in our candid opinion was designed to be bullet-proof, provided significant information for at least three critical sectors of the polity, namely the youth population; the legislators in the National Assembly (NASS); and the legal representatives of the parties who appeared before the PEPT. Let us have a quick look at each of these points in a little more detail.
THE YOUTHS – In the build-up to the February 2023 presidential election, the youth population were sensitized, energized and mobilized for increased participation in the electoral process, which ought to extend to the litigation arising as a fall-out from the results that were declared. It is a very important component of the process of political awareness that the youth understand and digest the outcomes from the litigation and in particular the reasons that were given on why the judiciary made its pronouncements. There is an enormous trust deficiency between the governing class and the populace, so it is extremely important that the leadership of youths across the country communicate this information to their volatile constituency, in order to reduce any social unrest or civil tension arising from misconception or misunderstanding.
THE NASS – In spite of the fact that a new Electoral Law was passed in 2022, the last election has thrown up a number of issues which will require the further attention of the national legislators, perhaps once matters are laid to rest at the Supreme Court. More clarification should be made in the Constitution on the seemingly controversial clauses of 25% in the FCT and the use of technology in the electoral process, for the sake of clarity and certainty. We also suggest that an urgent review of the electoral calendar is also desirable in order to find a way that election petitions can be resolved as soon as possible after election results are declared and before the winners are sworn into office.
THE LAWYERS – Prior to the commencement of the Tribunal sittings some parties made application for full media/press coverage, which was declined by the Justices of the Court of Appeal and one of the reasons was to avoid turning this important national event into a circus. The advocates for coverage argued that it would help to make the process more transparent. Nevertheless, the lengthy 12-hour Judgment broadcast delivered LIVE to a global audience was in itself a circus that betrayed many of the deficiencies exhibited by some of the legal teams. Too many parts of the various petitions were expunged by the Court suggesting to us that the submissions were repeatedly akin to a half-baked loaf of bread and perhaps short-changed their respective clients. Some of the grounds of argument were described as being bizarre and in general terms the petitions were dismissed as being unmeritorious, lacking in merit, an abuse of court process and in consequence a waste of court time. Whilst we are not directly advocating any form of punitive sanctions, we strongly believe that such practices must be discouraged from occurring in future. As the parties’ troop off to the Supreme Court, our fervent prayer is that they address frivolous petitions and call erring parties to order. Even though litigants are responsible for their own legal bills, the courts and tribunals are funded by the mercy of public funds, which should be judiciously expended on behalf of the masses.
We invite you to respond to this article, with your comments and views.
Gbenga Akinmoyo (Hon GaRo) is a legal practitioner, political & public affairs analyst, Executive Director of Rebuild Nigeria 360° and Co-Founder/CEO of LeadIFollow Limited. (+234 803 660 9090).