It is now a peculiarity of our democratic dispensation that the courts rather than the polls have the last say on the final verdict of electoral contest. Absurd as it is for a panel of judges to have the authority of conclusive endorsement of the choice made by multitudes, expressing their civic duty, it is an awkward burden the judiciary must bear as a constitutional responsibility, not an acquired privilege. As a major pillar of constitutional democracy, the judiciary is ultimately accountable to the people in the exercise of its functions because, where judicial prudence stops is unavoidably the take-off point of injustice and self-help scenarios fill the void.
This preamble fittingly sets the stage for considering the situation Nigerians face in anticipation of the verdict of the Presidential Election Tribunal in the petition challenging the election of President Muhammadu Buhari in the February 23, 2019 presidential elections. President Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) polled 15,191,847 votes to defeat his closest rival, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who scored 11,262,978, losing the election by a margin of 3,928,869 votes.
But Atiku, in his petition filed on March 18, 2019, told the tribunal that the election was marred by irregularities, adding that President Buhari is not qualified and should not have been allowed to contest the election. He also faulted the claim by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that it had no central server. Consequently, he urged the tribunal to uphold the petition and nullify the participation of Buhari in the election on the ground that he was not qualified to have stood for the election, in addition to malpractices that prompted his declaration as the winner.
However, INEC urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition with substantial cost because the electoral body conducted the election in total compliance with the Nigerian constitution and Electoral Act 2010. INEC said it did not transmit election results electronically because doing so was prohibited by law.
In his defence, President Buhari through his legal team argued that Atiku’s petition was liable to be dismissed because it was lacking in evidence, merit and substance and that the petition is ill-advised and signified nothing. He cited Section 131 of the constitution which stipulates a minimum of secondary school attendance to qualify for the election in Nigeria, adding that he cannot go beyond that and that he does not need to tender or attach certificates before he can get qualification for any election.
The APC, in its submission, said that the petition lacked quality evidence that could warrant the nullification of the election as pleaded by the petitioners and urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition as long as its hand can do with huge cost.
At the end of its hearings of the petition filed by Atiku and his party as well as the defence put up by the incumbent president’s team, his party, and INEC, the justices were left with the tricky task of weighing the gravity of the petitioners’ articulated contention that President Buhari’s election should be upturned, against the potency of his legal team’s validation of the election and delivering a verdict of their own conclusive assessment.
Evidently, there can be no perfect election, especially one involving such vast constituencies, numerous voters, huge logistics, multiple malpractices, rules and regulations, one electoral body and the highest office in the land. Typically, the elections at all levels have accompanying ad-hoc judicial panels to determine petitions from disgruntled parties and candidates who rarely lack grounds for questioning declared results. It is a sad commentary on the conduct of the election processes and the confidence of the parties, candidates and the citizenry that democratic choice has become highly contentious and inconclusive, dependent on judicial diagnosis and validation.
For obvious reasons of human fallibility, not to mention the judiciary’s institutional susceptibility to the political, economic and financial ill-winds blowing across the land, standards of elections are no longer the exclusive preserve of electoral bodies and judicial panels to monitor and assess. A plethora of independent, local and international non-governmental agencies have since assumed greater roles and their collective conclusions provide a more convincing comparative basis of determining the relevance and validity of judicial pronouncements for public record.
Indeed, the public perception of the conduct of elections as directly witnessed by voters, facilitators and political parties is yet another source of determining the overall outcome as well as the dependability of judicial reviews and pronouncements. This is one factor over which the judiciary cannot claim immunity or take refuge from, as it often does, under the dubious canopy of ambiguous legalese and contrived technicalities. This is where the voice of the voiceless voters and courtroom audience conclusively determines the presumed piety of the priests of the temple of justice and their place in history, distinction or dishonour.
Flowing from this, the burden of anxious anticipation and the tense suspense in heightened expectation of the ultimate triumph of truth over falsehood, frankness over prevarication and justice over injustice must weigh heavier in the conscience of the justices of the Presidential Election Tribunal than in the political consciousness of the people of Nigeria. May the fear of God guide them, amen.