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The courts as gambling houses

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By Ochereome Nnanna
Once upon a time in this country, election petitions were settled within the two-month intervals between the polls and swearing-in of elected officials. For instance, the staggered elections of 1979 culminated in the presidential poll on August 11, 1979.

Not satisfied with the outcome as pronounced by the then Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) which indicated that Alhaji Shehu Shagari, the flag bearer of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) was the winner, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, the leader of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) went to the election petition tribunal to seek redress.

Within a space of six weeks, the case had been concluded at the level of the Supreme Court and the winner was sworn-in on the due date of October 1, 1979. Shagari had the opportunity to start addressing the problems of the country without undue distraction from day one.

While Chief Awolowo returned to qualitative opposition, proffering alternative ideas on how to move the nation forward rather than the frequent wishy-washy press releases from the Action Congress (AC), the Nigerian People’s Party (NPP), led by Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe went into a political accord, which enabled it to produce the Speaker of the House of Representatives and ministers in the Shagari cabinet.

The level of politics played in those days was noticeably sounder than what we have today. It was not only among politicians of yesteryears that good quality output was evident. The Judiciary was much more credible and conscious of the importance of their work in nation building and the nurturing of our political culture.

I have often wondered to myself: what was it that made election petitions much easier to dispose of in those days than today? Was it not the same Nigerians that contested elections? Was it not the same Nigerian jurists that entertained the election petitions? Was it not basically the same 1979 Constitution as amended in 1999?

The only thing that has changed is the steep drop in the quality of the people engaged in politics or handling election petitions.

Politicians are far more desperate for power these days than they used to be in the past. Before, people sought power in order to provide leadership. Sometimes they sought it in order to put the section of the country or state they came from in power. People did engage in a measure of sleaze but politics was not the treasury looting spree that it has become today.

The desperation that is associated with today’s politicians, which is responsible for the endless bouts of election petitions, is because of the fact that politics has become the easiest way to instant wealth, or more wealth for the already wealthy.

Spotting the desperation as a great opportunity to make a killing, lawyers and senior barristers have descended like menacing vultures upon politicians. Even when those pronounced by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as election losers decide to call it a day with the election tribunals, lawyers are on hand to paint pictures of legal loopholes that could be capitalised upon to transform defeat to victory.

The case of Chief Andy Uba’s serial court actions, which finally ended about a month ago at the Appeal Court, Enugu, was probably the most nauseating.

Another series of court gambles that have turned almost comical is that of Chief Martin Agbaso, the candidate of the All Progressive Grand Alliance (APGA) versus Sir Ikedi Ohakim, who flew the flag of the Progressive People’s Alliance in the April 2007 governorship election in Imo State. Imo was the only state where the INEC had to cancel the April 14th governorship poll on the ground that conditions were not ideal for free, fair and credible outcome.

The election was shifted to April 28th. Due to the withdrawal of the PDP candidate from the ballot, Agbaso became the candidate to beat because the PDP, still the largest party in the state, was initially inclined to throwing its weight behind him. But by April 28th when a conclusive poll was held, he was no longer the man to beat because the PDP had settled for a former member, Ohakim, who was running on PPA platform.

What makes Agbaso’s court pursuits a little bit cockeyed is that he participated in both the April 14th and April 28th polls. He went to court claiming he won both. When the election petition tribunal and the Appeal Court awarded victory to Ohakim, he fell back on the April 14th poll.

Claiming he was winning before INEC cancelled it, he asked the court to force INEC to release the result of the inconclusive poll. The questions on people’s lips are: if Agbaso truly believed he was winning the April 14th, why did he also contest the April 28th edition? If he had been declared winner in the April 28th poll, would he have remembered the April 14th edition?

The court victories of Mr Peter Obi and Hon Chibuike Amaechi must have encouraged the Agbaso camp to believe that somehow, something might come out of these endless suits. However, his case and theirs do not match. There is a difference between seeking justice and refusing to accept defeat.

However, it is Agbaso’s money that Agbaso is using to pay lawyers. And he has the right to keep spending when the man he is suing does not have to spend a kobo from his personal pocket (or does he?). With the case returned to the starting block by the Abuja Court of Appeal, it may not be till about this time next year before it is concluded at the Supreme Court. By then, we will have only three months to the end the political term.

Should it not have been far better if Agbaso spent his money and time preparing to confront Ohakim again in 2011? If he chooses to keep trying his luck, the choice (and the money) is his.

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