Three months to the 2019 general elections, aggrieved politicians and members of the public are already looking up to the Court of Appeal to resolve many of the petitions that will emanate from the polls.
In exercise of her constitutional powers, the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, has commenced the process of constituting the various election petition tribunals for speedy and efficacious dispensation of justice in the petitions that will arise from the elections.
In the aftermath of the 2015 general elections, Justice Bulkachuwa, said the Court of Appeal received a total of 730 election petitions, and that of these, 39 governorship petitions got to the Court of Appeal in 2015, 79 senatorial petitions, 179 House of Representatives and 380 Houses of Assembly petitions.
In addition, 32 petitions were filed in 2016 which included Bayelsa and Edo states and other re-runs, and 21 petitions were filed in 2017, including Anambra State governorship and some reruns.
She said a total of 110 tribunals were set up with 255 judges for the hearing and determining the various petitions.
She also said a total of 749 appeals emanated from decisions of the various election petition tribunals in 2015, while Abuja Division had an additional 75 appeals in the 2016/2017.
Already, the PCA has constituted the Ekiti and Osun governorship election tribunals and their sittings have also been moved to the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) to ensure neutrality and credibility of outcomes. The panels followed the Ekiti election, which held on July 14, and the Osun election, which held on September 22 and 27.
The election petition panels for Ekiti and Osun were constituted following the petitions by Prof. Olusola Kolapo and Sen. Ademola Adeleke, both of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), challenging the elections of Kayode Fayemi and Isiaka Adegboyega of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Ekiti and Osun states respectively.
However, the reconstitution of the panel for the Osun tribunal was misunderstood by some members of the political class in the state even though the Information Officer of the Court of Appeal, Mrs. Sa’adatu Musa, described the action as an administrative step by the PCA.
Mrs. Musa explained that, “The Court of Appeal is neither for APC nor for PDP” and that the court, in accordance with its constitutional powers, was interested in strengthening public confidence in the rule of law and credibility of the judicial process in dispute resolution.
Human rights lawyer, Hamid Ajibola Jimoh, stressed the constitutional powers of the PCA to establish election petition panels by virtue of Section 145 of the Electoral Act, 2010.
Also, sub-section 3 of the Sixth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution empowers the President of the Court of Appeal to constitute the chairmen and other members of the election tribunals in consultation with the Chief Judge of a state, the Grand Kadi of the Sharia Court of Appeal of the state or the President of the Customary Court of Appeal of the state, as the case may be.
Under the Electoral Act, 2010, while appeals arising from the governorship and presidential elections terminate at the Supreme Court, the National Assembly and Houses of Assembly appeals end at the Court of Appeal except where they are pre-election matters.
But the Court of Appeal under Section 239(1) of the constitution has original jurisdiction to hear and determine the validity of a person elected to the office of the president or vice president.
Because of their special nature, Section 134 (2) and (3) of the Electoral Act, 2010, provides for time limit for election petitions for within 180 days. And similar provisions are contained in Section 285(6) and (7) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended).
The provision reads thus: “An election tribunal shall deliver its judgement in writing within 180 days from the date of filing of the petition.”
And Subsection (7) of Section 285 of the constitution provides that: “An appeal from a decision of the election tribunal or court shall be heard and disposed off within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgment.”
The importance attached to election petitions by the nation’s judiciary to warrant the time frame for their conclusion is derived from their nature as special class or unique proceedings, also referred to as “sui generis”.
A former Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Muhammadu Uwais, had explained that an election petition was not the same as the ordinary civil proceedings in the law court.
Justice Uwais said, “It is a special proceeding because of the nature of elections which, by reason of their importance to the well-being of a democratic society, are regarded with aura that places them above the normal day to day transactions between individuals which give rise to ordinary or general claims in court. As a matter of deliberate policy to enhance urgency, election petitions are expected to be devoid of the procedural clogs that cause delay in the disposition of the substantive dispute.”
Further, a former Supreme Court judge, Justice George Oguntade, stated that: “It must be borne in mind that an election petition is not always to be treated as the ordinary civil suits in court. An election petition creates special jurisdiction and the ordinary rules of procedure in civil cases do not always serve to affectuate its purpose.”
Furthermore, public law expert, Akin Oluwadayisi, harped on the independence of the judiciary, particularly the Court of Appeal, as a fundamental concept not only in the principle of separation of powers and checks and balances in the art of governance, but in the resolution of election petitions.
“It has earlier been mentioned that out of all claims brought before the court to resolve, election petition cases are the most sensitive in that the interest of the legislature and executive is usually involved. In some cases, the judges or tribunals or courts that are called upon to resolve them are tied, one way or the other, to the stakeholders in the matter. This is the more reason why the court’s independence must be flogged over and over again. The independence of the judiciary we are referring to here involves both structural and budgetary independence,” he said.
For Olisa Agbakoba (SAN) etal, in their “Manual on Election Petitions in Nigeria”, the specialty of election tribunals is because they seek to unravel disputes arising from areas such as: the results of an election, allegations of improprieties and fraud on the part of a candidate to an election or the electoral body (or its agents) made by a petitioner; allegations of non-qualification to contest an election on the part of a candidate to an election made by a petitioner; challenging the presentation of a candidate other than the petitioner by a political party, among other issues.
Indeed, the interest in judicial election petition panels ahead of the 2019 elections can be seen as a testimony to the confidence that petitioners and the Nigerian electorate have in the judiciary as an effective and indispensable partner in the drive towards the sustenance of the country’s democracy.