By Rotimi Fasan
IN Nigeria, allegations of corruption have in recent past placed the role of election tribunal in jeopardy. Election petitions, just like the ordinary day-to-day civil cases, are intended to be dealt with by tribunals consistently, fairly without bias or partiality.
You must bear in mind that in most cases in this country, when Election Petition Tribunals fail in their duties, the consequences had been violence resulting in murder, arson and grievous bodily harm.”
That was the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Aloysius Katsina-Alu, addressing members of the 2011 election petition tribunals during their swearing-in in Abuja on Monday last week. Of the 210 persons qualified to be members of the tribunals, according to the Vanguard report I saw, 110 were selected for the increasingly controversial job of chair of election petition tribunals.
I guess when you saw the word ‘members’, what probably came to your mind was some kind of august and friendly class of people out for some very noble activity. In this case, the newly appointed members of the election petition tribunals are noble, if for no other reason than the fact that they are all judges and, by definition, members of a so-called noble legal profession.
But how noble are the activities of these judges with regard to their roles as judicial officers presiding over election disputes? We shall come back to that shortly. But first to the other matter of setting up two election petition tribunals in each state of the federation to oversee electoral disputes into state and national assemblies.
What that immediately impresses on me is the ugly reality of how elections no longer represent the sovereign will of the Nigerian people. It’s clear now that it’s the judiciary that determines to a high degree what Nigerians pretend they do when they go out to vote: elect their own representatives.
The difference in this case, however, is that what the judiciary does amounts to nothing but imposition in many instances, especially where judges indiscriminately extend the tenures of people whose victory was in the first instance dubious.
If one was in doubt of this, the fact that no less than 110 judges had to be sworn in to preside over cases of electoral disputes erases the doubt. Whereas the courts in other parts of the world are there to intervene in the rare cases of electoral disputes after an election, they’ve become, in Nigeria, a permanent feature of our electoral culture, such that it’s now taken for granted that special arrangements have to be made, in advance, to ensure that such electoral disputes we’ve come to see as natural are well taken care of.
And so after Nigerians have taken time out to vote, they then sit back in agonising anxiety to await the decisions of the courts or, more appropriately, tribunals that are presided over by legal potentates unknown to the electorates.
Thus, in a bid to contain the beast of electoral disputes we end up creating the monster of corrupt judicial officers who now see their roles as avenues for quick money-making. Hence, the cautionary note of Justice Katsina-Alu’s address. But that caution would appear lost on Nigerians, including, no doubt, some of the judges being sworn in, knowing that the exalted office of the Chief Justice has, itself, come under the looming shadow of corruption charge.
The dispute resulting in accusations and counter-accusations between the two most senior judges in the country, Justice Katsina-Alu and President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Ayo Salami, makes hollow any tough talk on the part of the judicial hierarchy on what serious sanction awaits tribunal judges who soil their judicial gowns and wigs with gratifications from election petitioners.
It’s no secret that both Justices Katsina-Alu and Ayo Salami have been at daggers-drawn and under investigation by both the National Judicial Council and the Nigerian Bar Association. The very ugliness of the situation which underlies the dilemma in which Nigerians and the judiciary now find themselves is that the National Judicial Council is headed by the two combatants whose disagreement now threatens to bring down our judicial sanctuary.
How impartial can such a body be? The dispute between them centre around allegations of interference into electoral disputes after Justice Salami alleged that his ‘promotion’ to the Supreme Court was, in fact, a demotion prompted by the determination of Justice katsina-Alu to punish him for not acceding to his wish on the disputed gubernatorial election in Sokoto State. The water would be muddied further by counter allegations by other politicians, such as ousted governor of Ekiti State, Segun Oni, who accused Justice Salami of corrupt conduct in his handling of cases of electoral disputes in Ekiti and Osun states.
Since the dispute came into the open there have been calls that both justices should step down but neither seems inclined towards such move. But even if they must step down it would not do to put the guilty, whoever that is in this unseemly dispute, in the same boat as the innocent.
It’s for this reason that I believe the truth of the matter should be brought to the fore and blame put where it squarely belongs. It would not be right to allow for what now seems a typical Nigerian malaise of painting all public officers as corrupt crooks with their own price, a practice best captured, in this immediate case of their ‘honourable justices’, by that popular bluff of a bygone era: “If you Tarka me, I will Dabo you”.
The Nigerian judiciary, despite occasional acts of redeeming significance from the bench, is getting ever more smeared in the mire of corrupt politics.
The situation is everyday made worse by the barely concealed attempt at suborning the judiciary, more often with its acquiescence, into partisan political matters by politicians who cannot accept defeat in good faith, or others who see winning as a do-or-die issue. Such professional litigants and bad losers would go to court to ‘prove’ that any electoral contest won by their opponent, even if from same parents, was marred.
Only days to the elections and even as we make plans to ensure that the elections end in the courts and/or tribunals, the most visible sign that Nigerians are set for yet another empty ritual of worthless balloting is the highly charged atmosphere of electoral violence.