MUCH criticism has attended the performance of the electoral tribunals throughout the country. The anger of those who lose is well noted, especially when they have to contend with wasted resources and their lost expectations pinned on cases, which sometimes look good enough for judges to grant them favourable verdicts.
It also has to be admitted that no judicial matter attracts as much attention as election petitions. The road to power is strewn with many ambitious expectations with the limitless possibilities of power in a country where certain elective offices elevate mere mortals to demi-gods.
People want power by all means. With eyes on the trappings of office, they would do anything to get power. Therefore, anyone who stands on their way is added to the list of enemies, which starts with their political opponents.
The judiciary has naturally been part of the blame list when elections are lost. There have been cases, some of near scandalous proportions, where allegations are made against judges at tribunals. The attention these allegations get from the National Judicial Council (NJC), the body that disciplines judges, is often muted. There was one clear case of a judge punished in 2003 for his role in the case involving a governor. The matter is still in court.
Not much has been heard in the other cases. With the opaque treatment of allegations against judges at tribunals, dissatisfied litigants have made allegations against judges their latest occupation.
There may be genuine cases of corruption in the tribunals, just like in many other aspects of our national life. Our position remains that these infractions should be investigated and the guilty parties punished.
A worrying trend is for all judges at tribunals to be dubbed corruption, a refrain that is becoming common among losers at tribunals. Without proof, and unwilling to submit their allegations for scrutiny, they make wild allegations against tribunals, casting all of them in the same boat.
Sometimes the allegations are that both parties in a dispute bribe the judges and it is left for the judges to base their judgement on a number of considerations, many of which may not be related to the merits of the disputes.
Others still contend that the judgements are mostly political. Many of the judges know who gave them a helping hand in their careers. When it is pay back time, they do not forget.
None of these assumptions help in the credibility of the decisions that tribunals reach. They also cast a slur on the credibility of governments that are installed at the instance of these tribunals.
Some issues are obvious about electoral tribunals. The electoral laws are heaps of jumbled words that it appears nobody was thinking of how to give effect to them. Many of the requirements for filing a credible case at tribunals are outside the reach of candidates. Judges attend to cases as they are brought before them.
With the holes in the electoral laws, the abuses that the security agencies commit, the partiality of the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, which comes at tribunals to prove it conducted free and fair elections, complaints have lean chances of success at tribunals.
These burdens of the electoral process result in series of technical issues on which many cases could be disqualified. On the other hand, some complaints do not have the resources to get good lawyers, who can wade through the miasma of legal papers that are required to put together a good case.
When these cases arrive before judges, the issues suffer from some of these technical defects. Again because they are political cases (electoral cases), it is easier for the public to read meaning to whatever verdict that is given. Emotions run high in electoral cases because of the high stakes of power. The personality of the individuals, a carry-over from the campaigns, where they have naturally abused themselves, lifts an otherwise judicial matter to another side of the contests between individuals, on one hand and their parties on the other.
If immediate measures are not taken, these allegations are capable of destroying what is left of the judiciary. We may also get to a stage where the best judicial brains would shun electoral assignments to protect their careers.
Justice at the tribunals would then be let not to the best judges, but those who are available. The verdicts could be worse than the ones being contested today.
Remedy for this situation would come from at least three fronts. The judicial authorities have to be more alert about the conduct of judges. There is a need for a special code for judges appointed to tribunals, including their relations with lawyers of parties to disputes. In the 2003 election petition, mentioned earlier, a serving judge was alleged to be involved in the bribing of members of the tribunals.
The punishment meted to judges caught in these allegations is retirement. Is that enough punishment considering the damage that their conduct does to the judiciary? Measures to make such misconduct unattractive must be in place and the judges made aware of the consequences of stepping out of line.
On the part of INEC, it must understand that when elections are rigged, an illegality has been committed. The illegality should be punished, and the rightful winner of the election restored to his position — that is justice. INEC labours to clear itself of electoral offences even when there is no proof that it is responsible for the crimes. In the attempts to state its innocence, INEC protects corrupt electoral officers, and politicians who commit electoral crimes, denying the law the chance to punish them.
INEC should prosecute those who commit any of the numerous crimes in the Electoral Act. It does not and this has promoted the reign of impunity. Tribunals annul rigged elections, but do not punish those who rigged the elections. That side of the evidence is ignored as if it is not important.
The Electoral Act is capable of taking a lot of matters away from the judiciary, if INEC faithfully and impartially implements it. Many of the cases at tribunals are built on INEC’s partiality and its selective use of the Electoral Act.
Politicians are too desperate for power — they would do anything to get it. Where they fail, they want to go down fighting, dragging along anyone or anything that they can. They are the ones offering the bribes, they are the ones complaining that they lost because they could not offer bigger bribes and they would be the ones to hail the judiciary, if they win.
If these matters are not given careful attention, politics, in addition to the serial damages it is doing to our country, could take along the judiciary, finishing off the final hope of anyone getting redress for the various injustices that result from acting with airs of impunity.
The judiciary is too important to democracy for it to be lost in the mire of electoral tribunals.