The election petition tribunals that are supposed to resolve the confusion that arose from the last election may have ended up inflicting more confusion on the polity. EMMA ALOZIE looks at the many conflicting rulings and asks whether the rulings are based on law or on politics
Many adjudged the 2015 general elections as probably the most credible. But curiously, the election petition tribunals have seen many of the elections upturned across the country.
The upturning of the elections may not be what has put lawyers and commentators alike in a state of confusion, rather the many conflicting judgments being delivered by the tribunals. The argument here is, why will similar cases attract two conflicting rulings.
The most recent judgment being that of the Taraba governorship election where the three man panel led by Justice Musa Danladi Abubakar nullified the election of Architect Darius Ishaku of the Peoples Democratic Party and declared Senator Aisha Jumai Alhassan of the All Progressives Congress, APC, as the winner of the poll.
In arriving at the judgment, Justice Musa Danladi Abubakar relied heavily on the method of nomination of Governor Ishaku, instead of the election proper. The tribunal maintained that there was overwhelming evidence that the PDP in Taraba sidelined the provisions of the Electoral Act 2010, and the 1999 Constitution, as amended, when it decided to hold the primary election that produced Ishaku as its candidate in Abuja instead of Jalingo, the state capital.
It held that the purported nomination of the governor for the election, without a valid primary election monitored by INEC, was in breach of Sections 85, 87 and 138(1) of the Electoral Act 2010, as well as Section 177 of the 1999 Constitution, as amended.
The tribunal stressed that the governorship primary election, the PDP held at its National Headquarters in Abuja, on December 11, 2014, was not known to the law and was, therefore, invalid. Besides, the panel held that the PDP failed to give cogent and verifiable reason why it decided to hold the said primary election in Abuja without the consent of INEC.
Lawyers have argued that by arriving at this decision, it is at variance with the ruling of Justice Elizabeth Karatu of the Benue State Election Petition Tribunal that dismissed the case of PDP challenging the validity of the nomination of Governor Samuel Ortom of Benue State. The facts of the cases are similar, but with different outcomes. The Benue tribunal dismissed the petition of the PDP arguing that the petitioner (PDP) failed to provide valid evidences to show that the APC did not hold its primaries as required by law. The PDP had argued that the APC did not hold any primary election in the state to nominate Ortom as its candidate.
Another issue of worry to lawyers and commentators alike is outright declaration of the APC’s candidate as the winner in the Taraba election in clear breach of Section 140 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), which states that “where an Election Tribunal or Court determines that a candidate who obtained the highest votes was not qualified to contest the election, it shall not declare the candidate with the second highest votes as elected, but it shall order for a fresh election. On the other hand, where the Tribunal or Court determines that the candidate who was returned as elected did not score majority of valid votes at the election, it shall declare the candidate with the highest valid votes as elected.”
Mike Ozekhome, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN has argued that the Taraba case is worthy of testing at higher courts because according to him, the case of the nomination of a candidate by a political party is a pre-election matter, which should not be entertained by an election tribunal but rather a regular court. Going by section 87 (10) of the Electoral Act 2010 as amended, which states “Notwithstanding the provisions of the Act or rules of a political party, an aspirant who claims that any of the provisions of this Act and the guidelines of political party has not been complied with in the selection or nomination of a candidate of a political party for election, may apply to the Federal High Court or the High Court of a State or FCT, for redress.”
And while explaining this section of the Electoral Act, Justice Sylvester Ngwuta of the Supreme Court said, “the plaintiff is not at large; he/she must be an aspirant.” This means that it is an aggrieved PDP aspirant in Taraba that should approach the court and not a candidate of another party.
The confusion is everywhere in terms of the ruling of the Election Petition Tribunals. Abimbola Salaudeen, a lawyer recently wrote that “the Supreme Court may have a lot more work ahead, as the legal authorities it had laid down over the years have been glossed over, or jettisoned altogether.” For instance, in the case of Rivers State election petition tribunal where Justice Suleiman Ambrosa jettisoned the ruling of the Court of Appeal in PDP versus APC where Justice Obande Festus Ogbuinya ruled that the card reader cannot be enough grounds to nullify an election. “The paragraph (13b) displays a vitriolic attack on the irregularities germinating from the improper or non-use of the smart card readers in the polling units.
“As it is, it has no life of its own as a ground. It endeavours to introduce the defects in the use of smart card readers. The evolution of the concept of smart card reader is a familiar one. It came to being during the last general election. On this score, it is a nascent procedure injected into our infant and fledgling electoral system to ensure credible and transparent election.
“The extant Electoral Act (2010) which predates the concept (of card reader) is not its parent or progenitor. Since it is not the progeny of the Electoral Act, fronting it as a ground to challenge any election does not have its (the Electoral Act’s) blessing, nay Section 138 (1) of it.
“Put simply, a petitioner cannot project the non-presence or improper use of smart card reader as a ground for questioning an election. It does not qualify as one,” the Appeal Court said.
However, in nullifying the Rivers State governorship elation, Justice Ambrosa posited that the smart card reader is must use. This has left many lawyers wondering where the confusion is emanating from. The question being asked is, whether the conflicting rulings are strictly on point of law or politics?
Expectedly, the PDP has accused the Presidency of interfering in the rulings of the tribunals arguing that the President wants to use the tribunal to silence the main opposition party. “Taraba state tribunal ruling again brings to the fore the organized plan by the President Muhammadu Buhari-led APC Federal Government to deploy all unorthodox means to decimate the opposition.
“It is rather curious and a great conflict of irony that the Taraba tribunal sitting in Abuja on security grounds faulted the conduct of PDP primaries shifted to the same Abuja on security reasons.
“Evidence that Taraba ruling was a product of presidency manipulation can be deduced from the fact that few hours before the judgment was delivered, the APC had arrogantly announced their victory on the new media”, the party said.
But the APC has vehemently denied this saying, President Muhammadu Buhari as well as his party, the APC, are strong believers in the rule of law, as against the rule of impunity, hence will never manipulate the judiciary for whatever reason.
‘’The PDP is clearly aware of this, but has chosen to blame everyone but itself for the fate that has befallen it. The PDP should have known that it will pay for its years of impunity and recklessness. For
this party, the chicken has now come home to roost.”
Perhaps only the higher appellate courts can provide satisfactory answer as to whether the conflicts in the recent tribunal judgments are more of politics than law. .