Last week Wednesday, millions of Nigerians were glued to their television sets and social media platforms. They watched intently as the five-man Presidential Election Petition Court(PEPC), led by Justice Haruna Tsammani, reeled out its verdict. At the end of its marathon ruling, the Court dismissed, for lack of merit, the petitions brought before it by the Allied Peoples Movement(APM), Labour Party(LP) and the Peoples Democratic Party(PDP).
A robust appreciation of the Court’s ruling must be informed by, and await, a careful perusal of this lengthy verdict, its many implications and nuances. Thus, a commentary at this juncture can only be tentative and putative. This notwithstanding, the abiding interest Nigerians showed in this Court ruling speaks eloquently to the deep concern they have about the future of their embattled country.
For the initiated, as well as students of the electoral process, the verdict was not surprising, even if it was sobering. The framers of our Constitution had intended that the Judiciary should be part of the electoral process. The Judiciary arbitrates and adjudicates over election petitions by aggrieved candidates. This has helped, immeasurably, to vitiate and to eschew an unhealthy recourse to violence or self-help by candidates and their supporters who feel shortchanged. It is on account this that the President of the Court of Appeal issues Directions shortly before the conduct of General Elections. These Directions undergird and underpin the rules that govern the conduct of Election Tribunals.
Court rulings, apart from expanding the frontiers of law, add tremendous value to our elections. By issuing landmark or pathbreaking rulings, the Courts correct the process and enhance our elections. Consequently, election cases are not mere academic exercises. Neither are they platforms for legal luminaries to exchange intellectual fireworks. They provide insights, illuminations and they point the path forward for the litigants and the Election Management Body(EMB).
Even if some of us are wont to disagree with the Court’s verdict or to be unhappy with it, we must come away impressed with how the Court strained itself to explain the foibles of each petition and, for good measure, cited a legion of authorities and cases to buttress its decisions.
The Court’s rulings underscore a number of salient points. One of them is that a petitioner has the onerous task and burden of proving substantial non-compliance with the law to win his case. The other is that, statutorily, the Independent National Electoral Commission(INEC), is joined as a party in each petition. These have grave implications. The task of proving substantial non-compliance with the law is an uphill one. It becomes more arduous where an Election Management Body(EMB), inadvertently, construes its role as that of pitching its tent with the respondent or working in cahoots with the respondent. In such a circumstance, it is likely to stymie or scupper the efforts of the petitioner in his bid to establish non-compliance.
In addition to the aforementioned, Court rulings, apart from being predicated on the law, and guided by evidence adduced by petitioners, must be based on settled law and precedent. The Presidential Election Petition Court’s ruling was awash with these. If the Court was detailed, on some occasions unduly so, and to the point of boredom, the verdict was substantially based on technicalities. Some of the potent arguments of the petitioners were set aside on account of not following due process or abiding by the Evidence Act. A prime example is the Court’s setting aside of the Observation Report of the European Union(EU) because the one presented to it was not a Certified True Copy(CTC).
The ruling also exposes, in bold relief, the peccadilloes of some of our revered Lawyers. The presentation of a document to Court, which has not been certified as valid, is a savage indictment. So is pleading a case which is statute-barred and a pre-election one that should have been heard or adjudicated upon by a lower Court. These, no doubt, reveal slovenliness, lack of thoroughness and a tendency to cut corners, all of which have pervaded our professions.
While it is right to be overarching sticklers for the law and precedent,undue reliance on technicalities by our Judiciary harbors the prospect of impeding justice, thereby birthing frustration with the law. In such a circumstance, citizens are likely to resort to unseemly behaviors, outside the ambit of the law, thus bringing to nought our initial quest to foster and engender justice and to nip violence in the bud.
Perhaps, if the political class had hearkened to INEC’s pleas for contestants to set great store by deploying trained Party Agents to man Polling Units(PUs) and Collation Centers, the petitions would have been imbued with specifics and graphic details of the malpractices which they(petitioners) alleged were perpetrated at PUs and Collation Centers. Unfortunately, they could only provide generic and non-specific allegations, bereft of the crucially important evidences they needed to convince the Court.
By streaming and showing the verdict live on social media and television, the Presidential Election Petition Court strained itself to explain the bases on which it arrived at its ruling. This provided considerable light and understanding of Court processes and rules, especially for lay persons. But matters would have been helped if the initial Court proceedings were televised real time. Nigerians would have had their O.J Simpson moment. They would have been able, at the end of the day, to juxtapose the proceedings and the ruling and arrived at a more informed and healthy conclusion. It would also have added more transparency to judicial and electoral processes.
Though the Court upheld the election of President Bola Ahmed Tinubu, it would have been better if the presidential election petitions had been dealt with before the President was inaugurated. This would have enabled the President to operate unencumbered, untethered and not weighed down by legitimacy challenges in the perception of Nigerians and the international community.
The respondent, in this case, and by the verdict delivered last week, is bound to savor his victory. He is even tempted to exult in it. By the same token, INEC is likely to feel vindicated and, therefore, bask in the glow of this verdict. Tempting as it is for the duo to chime, it would serve the country well if they were to restrain themselves and to carry themselves with sobriety. After all, in spite of this verdict, the election was deeply flawed . Besides, INEC did not deliver on its pledge to conduct the best elections in our annals.
The President himself is not a paragon. His well advertised blemishes have the capacity to diminish the esteem of his exalted office as well as the standing of his compatriots.
This is a time for sober reflection and healing of wounds. And this is the time to show charity to all.