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The laws, the rules, INEC, and the politicians (II)

Four groups constitute clear and dangerous obstacles to the credibility of our elections. The first group consists of INEC field officials who appear to define…

Four groups constitute clear and dangerous obstacles to the credibility of our elections. The first group consists of INEC field officials who appear to define their responsibility in terms of personal benefits from the system. They are the eyes of the commission on the field with the obligation to prevent candidates and their political parties from violating the system.

It is their duty to ensure that the basic rules of voting stipulated in the electoral act are transparently observed to the satisfaction of all concerned. Many of them have performed that duty in a manner that denies our elections credibility. Think of the word compromise and think of the egregious abuse of the system for personal benefits. And think of what compromise gave birth to – corruption.

Reports of election observers are quite often ignored. In the first part of this piece, I quoted a letter to the commission written by the Centre for Leadership Legacy International, one of the observer groups to the conduct of the governorship election in Kogi State on November 11. Let me quote part of the letter in support of my earlier assertion that the field officers of the commission tend to see no wrong where there is clear and obvious wrong. The observer group complained that the decision by the commission “… to accept the blatantly fraudulent results from Kogi Central Senatorial District, has not only tarnished the integrity of our electoral process … but also deeply eroded public trust in INEC’s ability to conduct fair and credible elections.” The commission throws the mud in its own face.

The second group comprises the security men detailed to polling stations to ensure peaceful conduct of the elections. They are not observers; the primary duty is to ensure the politicians play by the rules. Myriads of electoral crimes are committed at the polling states. Ballot boxes are snatched by thugs employed by the candidates to an election. Despite the presence of the security agencies, this crime continued to be brazenly committed. Like the INEC field officers, the security agencies see wrong and avert their eyes. They see thugs snatch ballot boxes but do nothing to stop them; they see stuffed ballot boxes presented at the polling states and let them pass.

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The politicians comprise the third group of obstacles for obvious reasons. They are the primary beneficiaries of elections conducted by means fair or foul but mostly foul. The credibility of an election is not their problem; loss is. Our politicians are not committed to best practices in democracy and the rule of law, the pillar of the democratic system. When winning is everything nothing else matters to them. When it is possible to steal victory, nothing but stealing matters to them.

The politicians are regarded as the visible faces of democracy. If through acts of criminal sabotage of elections, those faces are pork marked, the rest of the world smirks at the inability of the giant of Africa to free itself from the shackles of more than 63 years of primitive politics whose arc is bent towards satisfying individuals. The integrity of our elections and the reputation of the nation be damned.

The fourth group is the judiciary. The third arm of government was dragged into playing a role in our elections by the departing generals in 1979 with the setting up of election tribunals. Their primary duty is to resolve disputes between candidates to elections in a manner consistent with the laws to ensure that injustice does not trump justice and that the face of credibility of our elections smudged by rigging, is cleansed. As a neutral body, the judiciary is in a unique position to prevent the rape of the system and restore credibility to our elections.

Trust in the judiciary to dispense justice has resulted in the large number of election petitions arising from the conduct of general or off-season elections. Aggrieved candidates who feel cheated at the polls take their cases to the courts in search of justice. The total number of such petitions in the six-year period between 2003 and 2023 is 5,153. The highest number of petitions, 1,290, recorded so far arose far arose from Obasanjo’s do-or-die 2007 general election; the second was the 2023 general election with 1,194 petitions.

We can accept these petitions as either evidence that we are learning the ropes to seek justice without breaking heads or limbs or as evidence that the free and fair conduct of our elections is still dancing owambe on choppy waters. We should interrogate the role of the judiciary in not only resolving electoral disputes but in the process serving the cause of participatory democracy.

How has the judiciary played its expected neutral role since our return to civil rule in 1999?  Have judicial decisions in election petitions served the cause of justice? Have they advanced free, fair, and credible elections? I do not pretend to have answers to these and possibly similar questions. But to be fair, but for the judiciary, warts and all, the politicians would make nonsense of our elections. It could have been worse, much worse than what it is now.

Sadly, however, the integrity of judicial pronouncements is pork marked with contradictions. No one can deny that the politicians have desecrated the temple of justice. In general terms, their rejection at the polls is remedied by the courts from the election tribunals to the apex court. Lucre plays a decisive role here as to who should be awarded justice and who should be denied it. The politicians now know that they do not need the ballot paper. They rely on the judiciary.

A man who loses at the election tribunal knows he can easily win at the court of appeal. The appellate system was instituted in the legal system to ensure that mistakes from the lower bench are detected and corrected by the higher bench. But this does not seem to be the case with our election petitions. Victory is dashed to the higher bidder. When the higher bench interprets the facts on which the lower bench based its decision differently, it is an indication that the law has been employed for the purposes of victory at the expense of justice and credibility.

The judiciary is now playing a role in our elections beyond the simple adjudication of election disputes. The politicians have surrendered the people’s right to vote and institute governments of their choice to the judiciary. Consequently, the judiciary has assumed a commanding role in our elections with the right to know the will of the people through technical interpretations of the law. The cause of law is served but the cause of justice and the cause of fair and credible elections are ill-served. The success of election petitions on technicalities undermines the integrity of the electoral umpire as well as the credibility of our elections. This is a huge problem for the country, its electoral umpire, and the credibility of its elections.