Electoral petitions should be disposed of beforewinners are sworn in. The present practice is defective

With the dismissal of their petitions by the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal on Wednesday, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and his Labour Party counterpart, Mr Peter Obi, have confirmed that they will approach the Supreme Court as final arbiter. According to the tribunal, President Bola Ahmed Tinubu who contested on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was validly elected on 25th February this year. The unanimous ruling by all the five Justices lasted over 12 hours and was delivered by Justice Haruna Tsammani. It addressed all the salient issues brought for adjudication and held that the petitioners failed to prove their allegations of irregularities, malpractices, corrupt practices,  and substantial non-compliance, amongst others. 

We commend both Atiku and Obi for toeing the path of peaceful disputations on the election. Once the inclination for rules and laws towers over recourse to self-help and violence, our society will be a more peaceful and stable one for citizens and foreigners alike. But there are matters arising from the election tribunal case that must be dealt with in the long-term interest of our democracy. The framers of our Constitution foresaw a 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. However, we are concerned by the time it takes to conclude such cases. 

Section 285 (6) of the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria (as amended) states that “an election tribunal shall deliver its judgement in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition”. Meanwhile, the petitioners have 21 days after the date of the declaration of the result of elections to file. The law further provides that “an appeal from the decision of an election tribunal or Court of Appeal in an election matter shall be heard and disposed of within 60 days from the date of delivery of judgement of the tribunal or Court of Appeal”. The combined effect of these provisions is that the declared winner would have spent no less than six months in office before the case is concluded. 

Since judicial systems hardly rule in favour of potential anarchy, the time lag makes it difficult to upturn a presidential election in which the incumbent has already spent months in office. That explains why we have always advocated a situation in which electoral petitions are concluded before the swearing-in of winners, as it is the case in many African countries. In Kenya, for instance, it takes only three weeks between the date of declaration of presidential election result and the decision of the Supreme Court. Article 140 of the 2010 Constitution of Kenya provides that the petition should be filed within seven days after the result is declared and “within fourteen days after the filing of a petition, the Supreme Court shall hear and determine the petition and its decision shall be final”. 

The present arrangement in Nigeria is inherently unfair. The idea that post-election disputes should be disposed of long after the declared winner has been in office puts the judiciary in a difficult moral quandary. If they rule in favour of the incumbent, they are open to charges of compromise and possibly corruption. If they rule in the opposite direction, they would be deemed as advocating anarchy. The way out is to amend the relevant laws to enable a speedy disposal of all post-election matters well in advance of the commencement of the succeeding tenure. Only then can we correctly gauge the independence and integrity of the judiciary and ensure equality before the law in electoral disputes. 

Meanwhile, we must also deal with an aberration that has become the norm. Ordinarily, the essence of judicial interventions in election matters is to promote democratic culture, strengthen the confidence of the people in the process and instil accountability in leadership. But by reducing our courts to vote counting stations with Judges now deciding the outcome of elections, allegations of deal-making and corruption are now rife. That also bodes ill for democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria. 


The way out is to amend the relevant laws to enable a speedy disposal of all post-election matters well in advance of the commencement of the succeeding tenure

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