By Tònnie Iredia
The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Professor Mahmood Yakubu could not have made a more cogent call last week when he spoke in favour of the establishment of an electoral offences commission.
He was on point in his argument that without it, Nigeria’s election process would be incomplete.
This is because one unending malaise in the nation’s election system from colonial times, is the ease with which elections are rigged in the country without consequences.
It is a subject that is overdue for action. An election offences commission, if well-handled, can drastically reduce the high degree of electoral malpractices in the country.
Even those of us who have always cautioned against an increase in the number of public bodies in the country are persuaded that the commission can best be seen as an unavoidable structure for now, notwithstanding the position of the Economic and Financial Crimes commission EFCC that the proposed commission on election offences is perhaps one more law enforcement body too many.
Whereas it makes plenty of sense to call for the establishment of an electoral offences commission, it must be remembered that the work of the commission would also end up in the judiciary.
Therefore, it is crucial to place high premium on how the framework for the settlement of election disputes is managed in the country.
As the nullification of some election results by the judiciary has clearly shown, the announcement of election results and declaration of winners do not conclude an election process until the judiciary settles disputes arising from the process.
In other words, a candidate declared as winner of an election is only certain that he or she will hold the relevant office where there are no disputes or where whatever disputes that were disclosed are pronounced upon by the judiciary.
Unfortunately, how the segment is currently managed is quite tardy with each party to a dispute taking whatever steps to outwit the opponent. Sometimes, because there is a constitutional time limit for dealing with election disputes, some candidates are able to manipulate the judiciary to introduce delays that would then overtake the dispute.
The handling of cases in the recently conducted governorship elections in Ekiti and Osun states aptly confirms the point that several hurdles are unduly placed on the way of petitioners. Since the declaration of a winner in the governorship election held in Ekiti state on June 18, 2022, the first runner-up, Engineer Segun Oni of the Social Democratic Party SDP has not been given a fair chance to follow the approved process of an election dispute.
According to the SDP, INEC has been preventing the party’s legal team from having access to inspect the election materials as ordered by the election tribunal. Considering that the settlement of election disputes is an integral part of the election process, is it really necessary for a party to first seek the assistance of a court before the umpire would make relevant materials available to her for inspection?
It appears in bad taste for INEC to continue to hold-on to the materials after the relevant tribunal had ordered her “to give unhindered access to the petitioner to inspect the electoral materials which include, Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) all ballot papers and voters registers.”
It is worse that the reason reportedly given for its action was that such materials had been moved from the state – Ekiti, to its headquarters.
Why would INEC transfer materials for conducting an election in a state immediately after the declaration of a winner when the contest has been subjected to a dispute?
It is more annoying that the INEC spokesperson in the state, Mrs. Rolake Odebunmi was quoted to have said that only half of the materials being requested by the SDP are in the custody of the Ekiti state office of INEC.
Again, the SDP had to formally apply to the tribunal to enable her use substituted service to serve the petition on all relevant bodies who had virtually vanished after the polls.
In truth, after a winner is declared in a Nigerian election, it is customary for most of those required to defend the case to evade service so as to make a petition difficult to prosecute.
Evidence that election disputes are treated same way everywhere is established by the experience in Osun state where a governorship election was held on July 16, 2022.
Governor Gboyega Oyetola who never provided a level playing field for the election until he lost it, is now at the receiving end. First, he has had to go to the tribunal to get an order for INEC to grant him access to inspect the materials used for the polls.
Second, it is now the turn of the winner of the election, Senator Ademola Adeleke to become elusive while the time allowed the tribunal is gradually running out.
The report now is that security guards at his Ede residence have refused to let the bailiff serve Adeleke the notice of summons.
In the interest of justice therefore, the chairman of the tribunal, Justice Tertsea Kume has appropriately directed that the notice be served through the substituted service of pasting the summons on the notice board of the tribunal
References to Ekiti and Osun states should not be taken to mean that the trend is restricted to both states, they are only the latest culprits.
In 2019, the election petition tribunal hearing cases concerning the governorship election in Nasarawa state had to order INEC to allow Musa Nagogo of the Peoples Democratic Movement PDM to inspect election materials over his original complaint that his name and party logo were omitted from the list.
At the federal level, the PDP candidate Atiku Abubakar spent precious time pleading to be allowed access to the presidential election materials for inspection.
In 2015, the APC governorship candidate in Rivers state Dakuku Peterside was reported to have virtually abandoned his petition out of frustration from among other things, the refusal to grant him access to inspect election materials.
There have been other occasions where it was the judiciary itself that was used to frustrate an election petition. Here, let’s recall the classical case of the handling of the petition arising from the Adamawa state governorship election held on February 4, 2012.
INEC had declared governor Murtala Nyako as winner which was upheld by the election tribunal.
On appeal which the constitution says must be concluded in 60 days, the judiciary did nothing for as many as 58 days. Some 48 hours before deadline, the then Chief Justice had to read the riot act following the protest of the opposition party.
Alas, it was too late for meaningful justice to be served. Should anyone who deliberately slows down the process not be penalized for it? Well, even courts have been getting engaged in the collation of results while working to the answer only to credit the “winner” with more votes than the number of voters accredited to vote at the relevant election.
It can therefore be concluded that it is not enough to establish an electoral offences commission or an election tribunal if undemocratic practices would be used to desecrate the legal processes for ventilating grievances.
As reforms are being made by INEC to improve upon the procedures and processes for voting, other bodies such as election tribunals must make copious plans to guarantee the continuation of a level playing field after voting till the end.
To use technicalities to frustrate the grounds of protests put forward by some candidates can encourage the use of extra-legal means that can lead to general breakdown of law and order.
Whether it is accreditation, voting, counting of votes, declaration of winners or settlement of election disputes, Nigeria is overdue for a process that can add her to those nations whose elections are accepted as credible.
The real prayer today is for all those concerned to bring an end to the unjust handling of election petitions which often sustains ample bitterness in the polity.