Road to justice in 2019 election disputes
Posted: 05/Mar/2019

Any moment from now, the battle will shift to the tribunals, where candidates dissatisfied with the results of the February 23 elections will take their cases. ERIC IKHILAE writes.

The contest for political power will soon shift to the courtroom.

Since the reestablishment of democratic governance in the country in 1999, it has become a tradition for losers to turn to the election tribunal for victory.

The urge by the losing candidates to explore the tribunal is mainly informed by the general belief that the electoral process can be manipulated and could be programmed to favour some entrenched interests.

Conscious of its role at every election circle, the Judiciary began early  the process of selecting justices, judges and staff to man the various election tribunals, meant to adjudicate disputes arising from this year’s elections.

In line with provisions in sections 1(3) and 2(3) of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution, the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, in liaison with heads of courts in states and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), came up with a list of 250 justices and judges, drawn from both the state and federal judiciaries, to man various tribunals.

On January 26 and February 14 this year, Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad administered the required oath on the tribunal members, following which a training session was held for them in Abuja between February 12 and 13 this year.

They have since been assigned to their various beats in threes, as provided in sections 1(1) and 2(1) of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution.

Also, as provided in Section 285 (1) & (2) of the Constitution, the President of the Court of Appeal, in early February this year, set up the presidential election tribunal at the Abuja division of the Court of Appeal. She equally established election petition tribunals in every state, including the FCT.

The tribunals’ personnel, made up of Secretaries and support staff, drawn from the 16 divisions of the Court of Appeal, have since been dispatched to their beats.

The names of members and staff of the tribunal are currently being kept under wraps as a strategy to protect them from “prying eyes” before the commencement of their duties.

Spokeswoman to the Court of Appeal, Mrs. Sa’adatu Musa Kachalla said the court chose to be silent, for now, on the names of members and staff of the tribunals, as a way of shielding them from external interference and pressure.

Membership, composition of election  tribunals
 
For the presidential election tribunal, Section 239(2) of the Constitution has made provision its composition and membership.

While subsection 1(a) of the section donates exclusive original jurisdiction to the Court of Appeal to determine any question relating to whether “any person has been validly elected to the office of the President and Vice President under this Constitution,” subsection 2 of the section provides for its membership and composition.

It states: “In the hearing and determination of an election petition under paragraph (a) of subsection (1) of this section, the Court of Appeal shall be duly constituted if it consists off, at least, three justices of the Court of Appeal.”

For the national assembly, governorship and state legislative houses elections tribunals, sections 1(1) & (2) and 2(1) & (2) of the Sixth Schedule to the Constitution equally spelt out how they should be constituted.

For the national and state legislative houses tribunal, Section 1(1) & (2) states: “A National and State House of Assembly Election Tribunal shall consist of a Chairman and two other members.

“The Chairman, who shall be a judge of a High Court and two other members shall be appointed from among judges of High Court, Kadis of a Sharia Court of Appeal, judges of a Customary Court of Appeal or other members of the Judiciary, not below the rank of a Chief Magistrate.”

For the governorship election tribunal, Section 2(1) & (2) provides: “A Governorship Election Tribunal shall consist of a Chairman and two other members.

“The Chairman, who shall be a judge of a High Court and two other members shall be appointed from among judges of High Court, Kadis of a Sharia Court of Appeal, judges of a Customary Court of Appeal or other members of the Judiciary, not below the rank of a Chief Magistrate.”

Operations of an election tribunal

The Constitution, in Section 285(4) – (8), spels out how the various tribunal should conduct their affairs.

It states: “The quorum of an election tribunal, established under this section, shall be the Chairman and one other member.

“An election petition shall be filed within 21 days after the date of declaration of result of the election.

“An election tribunal shall deliver its judgment, in writing, within180 days from the date of the filing of the petition.

“An appeal from a 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 the delivery of the judgment of the tribunal or Court of Appeal.

“The court, in all final appeals from election tribunals, may adopt the practice of first giving its decision and reserving the reasons therefore to a later date.”

How to ensure justice in the 2019 election disputation season

Stakeholders have continued to offer advice on how to ensure success in the activities of the election tribunals, as attention would soon shift to them at the conclusion of the ongoing elections.

Acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, President of the Court of Appeal and senior lawyers have also offered admonition to those charged with managing the affairs of the tribunals.

Muhammad urge the 250 members of the tribunals to see their assignment as a call to duty and service to our nation and advised them to remain loyal to the judicial oath, to which they subscribed, upon their inauguration.

He reminded the justices/judges that their choice as members of the tribunals impose on them the duty to rise above all temptations and do justice in accordance with the law.

The acting CJN told the tribunals members that the task of adjudicating election petitions would task the content of their conscience.

He said: “Your participation in these tribunals at this crucial phase of the Nigerian judiciary is not by accident but a clear design of the Almighty Allah. This is an enormous national assignment that will literally put the contents of your conscience to test.

“As judicial officers, you may have, one way or the other, trodden this somewhat dreaded terrain, but you must, against all odds, rise above the murky waters of failure and infamy.

“The onus is on you to keep aloft the banner of honesty and integrity that the judiciary has painstakingly hoisted over the years. Your appointment to serve in these tribunals is well conceived, thus, you should do everything within your ability to justify this confidence.

“There is no doubt that you will be exposed to different forms of temptations and even blackmails but you should know that all are aimed at testing your strength of character, honesty and integrity.

“My candid advice is that, in whatever circumstance, you should always be mindful of this oath you have just taken because it now stands as an uncompromising witness between you and your creator.

“You are enjoined to always strike a balance between justice and rule of law as you embark on this critical national assignment. As you all know, the rule of law delayed, is lasting peace denied because justice is a handmaiden of true peace. We need this in Nigeria more than ever before.

“The trumpet must first sound from the temple of justice; hence we put you forward as champions of this noble cause. By virtue of this oath, you are now armed with the power to adjudicate on electoral disputes and take decisions in accordance with your conviction, which must be deeply rooted in law and not sentiments or public opinion.

“l pray the Almighty Allah will grant you the courage and wisdom to carry out this responsibility without faltering or failing,” Muham-mad said.

Bulkachuwa did not only advise the tribunal members and staff, she threatened to come down hard on anyone found wanting. She urged the justices/judges not to grant long adjournments or use technicalities that could cause delays while hearing petitions that are brought before them.

Bulkachuwa equally warned them to distance themselves from conduct capable of further denting the image of the Judiciary, which, she noted, was presently witnessing challenges.

The President of the Court of Appeal noted that the Judiciary “is now in the limelight and is on trial. Let us as judicial officers discharge the responsibility reposed on us both individually and collectively by dispensing justice in accordance with the law.

“We should serve justice without fear or favour, affection or ill-will within the dictates of our conscience and oath of office. I need not remind you that each tribunal member will be closely monitored by the office and I will not hesitate to descend on any judge found wanting in the discharge of his or her duties.

“I do not need to remind you that the task ahead of you is enormous and I implore you to exhibit professionalism and due diligence in the discharge of your duties. Be in control of your courts. Do not allow yourselves to be steered around by emotions, fear or sentiment,” Bulkachuwa said.

Mahmoud Magaji (SAN) and Dr. Charles Okeindibo spoke in similar vein, but stressed the need the tribunals members to be guided solely by the provisions of relevant laws, particularly the Constitution and Electoral Act.

“I can only wish members of the various tribunals well and advise them to stick to the provisions of Section 285 of the Constitution. They should be firm and be guided by the law,” Magaji said.

On his part, Okeindibo said, while it was advisable to members and staff of the tribunal to be guided by their conscience and the sole aim of ensuring justice, the appointing authority should be firm in applying punishment, where necessary, should any member or staff strays.