As Presidential Election Petition Tribunal commenced on May 8, Nigerians are keenly interested in how the whole process will go and the eventual end is the priority of every well-meaning citizen, which literally translates to the fate of Nigerian people being in the hand of five Justices who are believed to deploy judicial prowess.
While Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party and the Labour Party respectively challenged the outcome of the 2023 presidential election that produced President-elect Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress, the tribunal which constitutes five Justices who are Haruna Tsammani, Stephen Adah, Misturat Bolaji-Yusuf, Boloukuoromo Moses Ugo and Abba-Bello Mohammed has a huge task which majority of Nigerians are not aware of.
Senior Programme Manager of the Kimpact Development Initiative (KDI), Mr Oluwafemi Adebayo, in an exclusive interview with DNN correspondent, Abiodun Busari, revealed a number of issues surrounding the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal ranging from the Tracker, the numbers of petitions, and televising the proceedings among others.
Adebayo said the KDI launched a tracker to monitor the election petitions submitted to tribunals across the country, while revealing that the growing number of interests in the 2023 elections among key issues became a necessity for the inauguration of the tracker.
Tracking petitions in the interests of Nigerians
About the tracker, Adebayo spoke about the tracking of the petitions for political and judicial correspondents, journalists and other media workers to access the dashboard. He specified that the interest of Nigerians plays a big factor in launching the tracker.
“The things we will say or the popular opinion or the psyche of the people is that the 2023 Presidential election was held on February 25 and for governorship and state House of Assembly on March 18 and there was the supplementary election on April 15 and we believe all is over, but these days the narratives are changing because the most basic thing, that is important is that the judiciary is gradually and increasingly becoming part of our electoral process,” Adebayo said.
He continued, “So the 2023 elections are not over because looking at the volume of petitions, the last time we had that number of petitions in the tribunals was 2007 which had about one thousand two hundred and ninety something petitions, so this is going to be the second time, that tell you that the judiciary is gradually and increasingly becoming part of our electoral process.
“So because of the increase in the interest of the people, most especially after the 2023 general elections that came with a lot of winds, upset and fallouts, one basic thing that works for us is that we just want to see that the people are following the process. They have an understanding of what is happening and what is it that transpired. So these are big documents that we try to break down into digestible contents, pieces for people to know. So people and individuals can access it, it is for them, they can access it on a web link, www.eptdashboard.kdi.org.ng.
“They will see a lot of information from there and have details of each of the petitions filed and be able to track them. They will have it broken down into who is the respondent, the petitioner, and what are the grounds? What levels are they? Are they at the pre-hearing level or level stage? Has the petition been withdrawn? Has judgement been given? They will see the petition number for all of the petitions that we’ve tracked.
“Before we go into petition details of such, there is also a dashboard that gives a summary and people can easily see what is the total number of petitions that have been filed and tracked, what is the percentage of the grounds. In terms of the three grounds of petition according to section 134, we talk about not qualified to contest, not complaint and corrupt practices, we also have a lack of majority votes cast.
“So these are the grounds that were broken down as well as the petitions into geo-political zones which zones have filed the highest, as of the last count, we have the south-south leading the pack with the number of petitions filed across the country, we have over 800 petitions that is based on the lack of compliance with the legal framework and corrupt practices.”
Tribunals will attend to all petitions
Speaking about the number of petitions and if all are important to be treated, Adebayo said, “For the record, there are over 1,000 petitions and to be precise they are 1,044 petitions that we’ve tracked and I’m telling you that it is still counting because of the supplementary election, based on the legal framework, the petitioner or anyone that feels aggrieved can file a petition within 21 days of declaration of the result, of declaring the winner of the election, that’s basically what that is. I just want to clarify that aspect.
“On the order of importance, which is the question you asked, I wouldn’t want to rank to say one is important more than the other, most importantly every of the seat, I think it is a question of the relevance of the seat That we’re challenging. I can tell you emphatically if you ask me about the relevance of a seat elected or elective position in Nigeria, that every seat is very important and contrary to popular opinion about the whole presidential election and seat, for us it is important to understand that democracy is about the people.”
He said, “And when we say that, it is the seat that is closer to the people, to tell you for a fact, it’s even the state House of Assembly, the governors, the National Assembly members and the House of Reps that are even closer to the people but because of the system of government we run in the country, when we talk about the system of government, as some would say we are not even practising true federalism but Presidential system in terms of our democracy.
“So basically, what that means is there is the tendency for people to see everything spotlighting the presidential election, it takes more priority than the others, I think that’s basically the way I’ll put it, but in terms of relevance ranking, I think every seat is important, but the governorship, the state house of assembly are closer to the people more than the president. But contrary to that, we have people shining and spotlighting the presidential election more from data that we gathered and from insight from some people that we’ve spoken with.”
Giving the assurance that the tribunal would attend to all petitions, he said, “As far back as last year, December 2022, the President and the Court of Appeal have inaugurated and constituted a whole body for the election petition tribunals and I know there are about 177 judges that have been trained, they were trained in January this year.
“So for each of the election petition tribunals, there are presidential election petition courts for tribunals which is housed at the court of appeal in Abuja, that is where all the election petition tribunals go to. Now, there are also tribunals for National Assembly elections both Senate and House of Reps, so these tribunals have their panels and often times they are three-man panel of judges.
“They have the National Assembly Election Tribunals, there is also the governorship, so the national assembly election tribunals are domiciled in each State. Don’t forget that we have senatorial districts and the senators from each district are domiciled in the state, most of the time at the high court in the state.
“Then we also have the governorship election petition tribunals also domiciled in each of the states, we have them across the state except for the states that have not had the governorship election. I’m talking about Edo, Ondo, Bayelsa, and Anambra. They don’t have a governorship election petition tribunal, there is now the state house of assembly, and for governorship and the state house of assembly, they are together.
“So we have the governorship and the state house of assembly election petitions tribunal, so in each of the states, that has governorship election, the possibility of having three tribunals based on the three elections I mentioned.
“So basically what that means is that each of the tribunals has their roles, they have their jurisdiction, to answer your question, yes the election petition tribunal will attend to each of the petitions before it, they won’t leave any unattended to. As a matter of fact, some of the conversations we are having are if the petitions have been before the tribunals, are fictitious, and if they are frivolous petitions, the court still goes through the process.
“This is basically based on the principle of fair hearing, it is a legal quotation, it is a Legal framework, so there’s a need for fair hearing. It is after the pre-hearing, filing, responses and the likes that is when the tribunal can say I don’t have jurisdiction to hear this case or this is a pre-election matter and at times they struck it out but they will still listen to them.”
Has the tribunal upturned the result that produced President-elect?
In the history of Nigeria since the return of democracy in 1999, the tribunal had not upturned the election that produced the President-elect, and KDI senior executive gave his opinion on what to expect or not to expect in the present one.
“When it comes to a case that has been before the court, it is very difficult to give an opinion as regards that. One thing that is important is that I may not be able to say directly what to expect from the presidential election petition that is ongoing. But to answer the other side of the question, never has it happened since the commencement of the fourth republic, since 1999, there have not been in terms of presidential election petitions.
“For a fact, from 2003 the election petition we’re able to track and get the data, the court has not upturned the declaration of INEC based on the presidential before. We had Obasanjo, for 6 years, and in 2003 it was contested and challenged at the tribunal. In 2007, the election that brought in late President Musa Ya’adua was contested. In 2011 the same thing for former President Goodluck Jonathan. In 2015 and 2019 all of these elections were challenged at the election petition tribunal, and practically all of them failed in that regard. I think one of the basic things that we need to consider is some of the technicalities, some of the things that played out in some of these tribunals.
“For instance the new Electoral Act, we need to look at the timeline before the 2022 electoral act, the timeline before was for a petitioner to prove his case, he had 14 days. For instance those days we had about 124,000 polling units before the new polling units were added. You know we have 176 now so before the new polling units were added you can imagine if the petitioner was challenging about 50,000 polling units across the country for presidential election on corrupt practices and malpractices, how will such a person prove that within 14 days?
“And such petitioner has to bring evidence from each of the polling units. And be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there is substantial non-compliance and how substantially will that affect the results? Basically, those are some of the things that might warrant it, we can’t also rule out the fact that the grounds of petitions are different and some of the interpretation of the judiciary is justice according to the law, what is the law saying, what are the facts in front of the court and they give judgement based on that.”
“And of course, I can tell you that one of the things we are expecting from the presidential election petition tribunal is that it is important that the court is transparent, that the court looks at it in terms of the need to be transparent. They don’t have to allow any form of intimidation, any form of harassment, they should ensure that there is no element of judicial corruption,” he stated.
Televising proceedings of presidential election petitions tribunal
Both Atiku and Obi have asked that the proceedings of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal be televised, a matter that is being considered.
But, on the matter, Adebayo said, “There have been clamours for petitions and agitation on the grounds that the presidential election petition tribunal proceedings should be televised. I’m not unaware of that conversation, but one key thing that is important is that the court of appeal, the supreme court is in charge, and the judicial institution in charge of tribunals across the country can make a pronouncement on that.
“Don’t also forget that it is a judicial rule that the court generally in Nigeria does not allow recording of their processes, they do not allow transmitting, livestreaming or recording. The Industrial Court at a time was televising their proceeding, one key thing I can tell you is that in Nigeria, there is no law to say there is a specific law against televising the election petition tribunal or court processes, there is none. Even the judicial code of conduct, the revised one was silent on that, but it is part of the norms of the judiciary and that is why they are not allowed. Televising an election petition tribunal has its advantage and disadvantage.
“The advantage of it is that it will have the concept of transparency of the judiciary, as people will know what is happening and understand the process. You know it’s about orientating and enlightening the people. So you might say one or two people are interested in the process, stay with it, listen to the process and rewrite so we believe that it will help.
“Because I believe that the judiciary is part of the top 10 institutions according to the United Nations Drug and Crime Department. The judiciary is one of the top 10 institutions in the country that has been accepted in terms of public mistrust or negative public perception.
“But at the same time, when you are closer to the judiciary you will understand some of the reasons they don’t allow it. One of the key things is they don’t want any form of media trial that can put the judges on the edge. Media trial is not good for the judiciary, I must tell you and with media sensationalism, we can’t rule out the fact that media generally in the world has their ideologies, they tend to pick the side of the story that favours their ideology. So when there is selective reporting of the election tribunals, it’s also not good for the judiciary so media trials, sensationalism, and selective reporting are some of the reasons.
“If you look at the criminal or civil cases, especially when they are doing trial if you’re televising such live it could put the witnesses in harm’s way. It won’t protect against the animosity of the witnesses, these are reasons they say not to record, livestreaming and the like.
“The question now is the balance. How do we balance the quest for the transparency of the judiciary, in terms of letting people know because oftentimes we see the judiciary as an institution founded in secrecy?
“So balancing it with the quest of transparency in terms of openness and understanding. What they do and the call against media trial, selective and sensational reporting that is just it. So we need to create that balance, until we do that we will still have conversations around televising and won’t see any action in that regard.”
How long will the tribunal treat petitions?
Adebayo also shed light on the duration that Nigerians will endure before they witness the finality of the election petitions across the country.
“Based on the Constitution, the 3rd or 4th alteration in 2010, limits the election petition tribunal duration to 180 days. And that starts counting upon the declaration. For instance, after the 25th February election, the declaration was made on the 1st of March, 2023. So from the 1st of March to the 180 days elapse, that should be around September or October ending. Around that period, we should be expecting that the presidential election tribunal court will make pronouncements and give judgement. But as it stands today, 5th of May, the presidential election petition court tribunal has spent 55 days out of the 180 days.”