ALL EYES ON THE PRESIDENTIAL TRIBUNAL
The courts should allow justice to prevail by placing a premium on facts before them
The presidential election petitions tribunal will tomorrow begin the hearing of petitions challenging the declaration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu as president-elect. According to the results declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) chairman, Mahmood Yakubu on 1st March, Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) polled 8.8 million votes to defeat Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) who garnered 6.9 million votes, Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP) who amassed 6.1 million votes, and 15 others. The petitions by Atiku and Obi seek to cancel the election or declare them as winners. Some candidates of the other fringe parties have also filed petitions at the tribunal against the declaration.
We take no interest in the arguments and counter arguments being canvassed by the parties in the presidential election dispute. Indeed, it is not in our place to analyse the weight of evidence before the tribunal. That is the task of the five-man panel that will begin to sit from tomorrow. But it is the sacred duty of the judiciary, in this case the tribunal, to safeguard the rights and liberty of the citizens. Respecting such rights forms the bedrock upon which the society lays claim to civilisation. The main concern here is the primacy of the law in the settlement of disputes in a nation where endless post-election litigations and protracted court processes have infected the judiciary with the massive corruption that has unfortunately now become part of the brand identity of Nigerian politics.
Meanwhile, we align ourselves with the argument that it should not always take months or years to adjudicate on election disputes. Speed and accuracy are of vital importance, particularly in the matter at hand. It is precisely on that premise that some people now advocate that the president-elect should not be sworn in until the case is concluded. Whatever may be the merit of that suggestion, there is no precedent for it in our political history. It is also a recipe for constitutional crisis since the incumbent must vacate office on 29th May.
However, this is a critical challenge that has dogged our democracy in the past 24 years and for which a more sensible solution must be found. There are several examples from other countries that we can cite, including within the continent, where dispensing with presidential election cases does not take long. In Kenya, it took exactly two weeks between the time petitions were filed after the 9 August 2022 presidential election and when the judgment was delivered by their Supreme Court. It is the same in many other countries. The lesson is that in election and other related matters where order and national stability are at stake, the judiciary must act expeditiously.
According to Section 132 (7) and (8) of the Electoral Act 2022, election petitions are to be filed within 21 days after declaration of results. The respondents also have 21 days to respond to the petitions. The hearing and judgement at the tribunal of first instance are supposed to be concluded within 180 days. Spending six months to conclude a case that will still end up at the Supreme Court is an affirmation of the legal maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied”. Besides, the intervening uncertainties usually create a situation in which every politician would be writing their own judgement based on their interpretation of the law in a divided polity.
As the presidential election petition tribunal begins sitting tomorrow, the Judges must recognise the function of law as an instrument of social engineering by ensuring that substantial justice is not only done but is seen to have been done by Nigerians. That will only happen if they place a premium on facts put before them rather than on legal technicalities. But we also urge petitioners at all levels to recognise that this will not be the last general election in the country. To that extent, they should eschew anything that would cast aspersion on the ongoing judicial process. The ideals of responsible citizenship demand that.