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Lawyers speak on court rulings, impact on major elections

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Intervention of the courts on pre-election matters

The intervention of the courts on pre-election matters, especially the recent pronouncements on the candidacies of today’s governorship elections in Kogi and Bayelsa states, has attracted diverse opinions from notable lawyers across the country.

While some welcomed the interventions as constitutionally guaranteed responsibilities of the courts, others were of the view that it might further expose the already battered image of the judiciary to ridicule.

Expressing his views on the matter, Kano State-based constitutional lawyer, Abubakar Sani, said the role of the courts in pre-election matters is little different from their post-election role, namely determining whether a would-be contestant in an election satisfies the eligibility criteria to participate in that election as a duly-nominated candidate of a political party.

That role, he said, is a function of both the Constitution and the Electoral Act.

“As long as the court judge in any given pre-election case faithfully discharges his or her sacred duty in accordance with the oath of his or her office, no matter whose ox is gored, few can complain. Indeed, the option of appeal is available to any aggrieved party. However, where such a party is unduly aggrieved or indeed such a decision is publicly perceived to lack credibility, it is the integrity/image of the judiciary as a whole that is imperiled. In either case, everyone must learn to give judges the benefit of the doubt, given that, by law, every judgment is presumed to be valid and correct until upturned on appeal.

“To the extent that the law or constitution gives the courts a role to play in resolving controversies over the eligibility or otherwise of persons who seek elective office, it is simply idle and rather pointless to conclude that courts are determining electoral outcomes even before the elections are held.

Judges are not self-appointed volunteers but are installed in office in accordance with the same laws, which they have sworn to uphold. Until it is clearly established that a judge in any given case rendered a decision on the basis of extra-judicial inducement or other extraneous factors, it will be most uncharitable to suggest that he or she played a role which was neither contemplated by the law or is otherwise inimical to his/her oath of office,” Sani said.

For human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa, caution is the word. He said he wished the judiciary would be more cautious in matters of elections.

According to him, the issue of who represents a party in an election or the capacity of a candidate to participate in an election should be left for the political parties.

“I am worried about the intervention of the courts in matters that should ordinarily be the internal affairs of the political parties. These cases expose the judiciary unduly and so they should be avoided.

“Elections to determine the Governor of a State should not be based on technicalities of judicial disqualification. Let the people choose their leaders.

“I’m unable to agree with the decision of the Federal High Court in Yenagoa that that APC has no candidate in the forthcoming governorship elections,” he stated.

But Lagos lawyer and human rights activist, Osita Enwe, said the judiciary’s role in pre-election cases is not limited to the adjudication of disputes.

According to him, judicial activism requires courts to utilise all pre-election cases and matters to pronounce on grey areas of the Election Act relating to issues before it. Courts are allowed to offer unqualified opinions on such issues, which relevant authorities – out of public interest – should act on it as indications.

The courts, he said, ought to weigh in acting on these cases by going beyond the declaration of rights to clearly midwife our democracy.

Another Lagos based lawyer, Stephen Azubuike, was also of the view that the regular courts have jurisdiction to determine certain pre-election matters mostly bordering on the candidacy.

The law, he said, is settled that political parties have the exclusive right to determine who a party’s flag- bearer would be. There are, however, other pre-election issues touching on a candidate’s disqualification to contest.

“Where decided, this may impact on electoral outcomes. The consequences are such that a party may be ruled to have failed to field valid candidates to the advantage of the opposing party like we saw in Zamfara.”

“However, following the amendment to the Electoral Act, it is no longer possible for a party who did not participate in an election due to some pre-election dispute to be declared the winner. In effect, the judicial miracle that brought Mr. Rotimi Amaechi to power can no longer happen,” he added.

The Chairman, Ikorodu Branch of the Nigerian Bar Association, Mr. Bayo Akinlade, enthused that the courts are an impartial arbiter expected only to interpret the law.

“Judgments of the courts will either validate or invalidate an election. The impact is as great as the decision of the electorate itself,” he noted.


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