The courts should ensure the election disputes are handled speedily
As provided for in the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), aggrieved politicians who were dissatisfied with the outcomes of the concluded elections are taking their petitions before the various election petition tribunals. Many others are in the process of preparing their cases. For this, we congratulate the politicians for their maturity in submitting themselves to the requirement of the rule of law.
The framers of our constitution foresaw this situation where electoral contests would become subjects of disputes and provided remedies. Aggrieved persons have the option of going up to the Supreme Court, especially for presidential and governorship elections. That these remedies are being explored is gladdening.
Election is a process. It begins with the registration of voters and ends with the conclusion of judicial adjudication over disputes. As the petitions get to the courts, we hope that the grey areas of our electoral laws are made clearer such that the aggrieved and other Nigerians would find the outcome of the arbitration acceptable as justice being served. That way, our inclination for rules and laws will tower over recourse to self-help and violence, making our society a more peaceful and stable one for citizens and foreigners alike.
However, we are concerned by the time it takes to conclude election cases in Nigeria. In most countries, these cases are concluded before an elected official can assume office. But we have a situation in which it could take up to three years before someone who was not validly elected loses his/her seat. Yet, delay in the hearing of cases in Nigeria is largely caused by lawyers, judges, and judicial staff. Our judges are ever ready to indulge and encourage lawyers to waste the precious time of the courts.
Meanwhile, the essence of the court’s interventions in election matters is to promote democratic culture and strengthen the confidence of the people in the democratic process. But for as long as we insist on reducing our courts to vote-counting stations in a manual process, this democracy will either destroy the judiciary or corrupt the judiciary to eventually destroy the prospects of democracy. Already, many of our politicians no longer bother with the electorate. They just contest and literally wait at the gate of tribunals and courts with bales of cash.
To be sure, the judiciary has the sacred role of interpreting laws and deciding the rights, responsibilities, and liabilities of parties to a dispute, including on election matters. But a situation in which opportunity for legal redress is available but where it comes with little or no hope of justice ever being served, is as good as useless. There have been brazen cases where losers are affirmed as winners and vice versa. In some cases, the rules of procedure of our courts are thrown overboard to achieve some predetermined end.
Interestingly, the rules of procedure of our courts prescribe a speedier process than what obtains in most jurisdictions including the United States. That is why the Supreme Court could ensure that all pre-election disputes were determined before the Ondo State governorship election. However, the same court is yet to conclude similar cases in other states. Yet in time bound cases, the apex court is empowered to announce a judgment and give reasons later. Since election petition tribunals sit on Saturdays, there is no reason why these cases should take forever to decide.
The delays in our judicial system are deliberate acts of individual lawyers and judges which of course is an extension of a national culture of tardiness and corruption. To stem it, we must restore integrity to the bar and the bench in Nigeria.