WITHOUT prejudice to the provisions of Section 294 subsection (1) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999, an election petition and an appeal arising therefrom under this Act shall be given accelerated hearing and shall have precedence over all other cases or matters before the tribunals or court”. – Section 48 Electoral Act 2006.
LAST week’s announcement that the 2011 elections would no longer go on in January has serious implications for efforts to clear the long list of election petitions that follow every election.
Those who argued about the injustice of people improperly elected assuming offices, benefitting from the spoils of the office until a court annuls the election, had expected that elections held four months to the handover date would provide enough time to dispose of cases at the tribunals.
The sad experiences of cases from past elections had underlined the importance of giving justice its real meaning as it applied to election petitions.
All the expectation has withered with the postponement of the elections to a time that would leave only a month to the handover. The vacuous provision of Electoral Act 2006, above, is one of the battles before aggrieved candidates of the 2007 elections.
The law does not recognise urgency in their search for justice. The cases are still in court.
Candidates in the 1999 and 2003 election, who believed they were rigged out, also faced similar problems of delayed or prolonged hearing at the election tribunals.
The main issue is that neither the Constitution nor the electoral law specifies the time frame within which election petitions should be concluded and it is important there is this time frame.
The maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied” aptly summarises the plight of election petitioners in tribunals across the country. Nothing so far seems available to address this lacuna.
The Electoral Act 2006 looks so vague in its provision calling for accelerated hearing. Election petitions are heard in speciailsed tribunal established and empanelled for that purpose so the need for giving election matters precedence over all other cases does not arise for apart from election petitions, no other matters can be brought before the tribunals.
With the elections in April, it would be almost impossible, even if the law says so, to expect that the tribunals would be able to finish hearing the cases before handover on May 29.
Peter Obi, Governor of Anambra State, reclaimed his mandate three years after he won the election. The delayed disposal of election matters has created the problem of tenure interpretation for elected officials.
Disputes over some legislative seats have not been resolved more than three years after the elections. What happens to candidates without resources for lengthy legal quests?
Is this the new meaning of equity? Why does the National Assembly gloss through this matter? Could it be because many of its members are beneficiaries of skewed electoral processes?
There are glaring defects in the electoral laws that needed rectification through profound, electoral reforms, but the National Assembly was more interested in working on self_serving provisions.
It is necessary to decide cases before people are sworn in, or have them refund earned wages and privileges when they lose at tribunals. Moreover, if the issues are pursued conclusively, actions they took while in office, especially for the executive, should be illegal.
The current practice of officials, whose cases are before tribunals using state resources to meet their legal fees, should be abolished.
Each election since 1960 has been rated worse than the preceding one, the only exception possibly being the June 12 presidential election in 1993. Controversies that trailed previous elections left many aggrieved candidates.
Cases are still before tribunals. Time no longer appears to be of essence. The Court of Appeal’s introduction of new election tribunal rules after the 2007 to ensure quick disposal of cases did not help. All material evidence, witness names supported by affidavits and everything necessary to prove a petitioner’s matter are submitted with the petition.
Election tribunals, in some cases have been mired by questions over integrity of tribunal members. Legal technicalities have also acted as cogs in the quick disposal of petitions.
Fair decisions and dispatch in reaching them are important in restoring confidence in the electoral system. Unless something is done quickly to facilitate quick disposal of electoral matters, the 2011 elections would suffer worse fate than the ones before it. The time to act is now.