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How Bayelsa, Imo governorship tussles can shape Nigeria’s electoral system

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Nigeria’s electoral system could be the greatest beneficiary from the recent rulings of the Supreme Court on the applications for the review of its earlier judgments on Bayelsa and Imo state governorship tussles if the National Assembly would look at the perceived loopholes in the judgments and enact laws to guard against such in the future, writes ONYEDIKA AGBEDO

Last Tuesday’s judgment of the Supreme Court, which dismissed the appeal filed by Chief Emeka Ihedioha, and his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), seeking the review of the January 14 judgment of the court that ousted him as the governor of Imo State and enthroned Senator Hope Uzodinma of the All Progressives Congress (APC) laid to rest the acrimonious exchanges between the two dominant political parties in the country. It also sealed the protests and counter protests that followed the earlier judgment.

Six out of the seven justices of the apex court that made up the panel led by the Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Tanko Muhammed, dismissed Ihedioha’s application on the grounds that the court could not reverse itself.

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The court had taken the same position six days earlier in a similar application filed by the APC asking it to reverse its February 13 judgment that sacked David Lyon as governor-elect of Bayelsa State on the grounds that his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo, presented false information to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in aid of his qualification for the November 16, 2019, governorship election in the state.

While both parties have accepted the judgments and moved on, with an atmosphere of peace pervading the states presently, many observers believe the judgments could impact the country’s electoral system.

Speaking with The Guardian, a Lagos based lawyer, Malachy Ugwumadu, said the Supreme Court used the two judgments to buttress that they are the final court in the country. He opined that if the court had granted the prayers of either of the parties in the two cases, it would have opened the gate for endless litigations in the country.

He said: “Let me start with the Bayelsa case. I think the Supreme Court managed, as it were, to reassert itself as the final court in the land and took advantage of that application to also send a clear message to Nigerians that although they may be fallible, they are final. In other words, the fact of their finality as the apex court in the country does discountenance their fallibility. But since they are final, they must be seen and respected as the final court in the land. And it was a unanimous decision. In other words, there was no dissenting judgment, which underscored the fact that they all saw it as a frivolous application and then descended heavily on the senior lawyers that filed it.

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“Except the Supreme Court asserts itself, there will not be any end to litigations. Just think of it; if the Bayelsa judgment was reversed, PDP would have gone back to the Supreme Court and so on and so forth.”

Ugwumadu stated that against the backdrop of the judgment, the National Assembly should take a closer look at the provisions of the law and re-evaluate the section, which provides that the mistake or sin of the deputy governorship candidate can completely frustrate the joint ticket of the governor.

“The Bayelsa case has gone the way it went but it is not in the overall electoral interest of the electorate in the state that the man whom they voted for have been thrown overboard on account of the non-qualification, as it were, of his nominee. So, perhaps the legislature in reviewing the Electoral Act or even the constitution can now take advantage of what has happened to look into that section.

“In the case of Imo, I think that Justice Nweze who gave the dissenting judgment should have gone a notch higher in recommending that their should be an investigation and possible prosecution if they had concluded that there were criminal cases involved in the process. It is not enough to just declare what has happened. The way we will grow as a nation is when it happens, we respond adequately. What about the political parties that fielded these candidates? What about the security agencies that screened them for the election? So, we must find a way of dealing with those issues with finality in such a way that the society will benefit from them,” he added.

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On his part, a senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science, University of Lagos, Dr Emmanuel Onah, said the judgments showed that the Justices of the Supreme Court were not infallible, noting that the realisation should spur relevant arms of government to put in place measures that would checkmate their excesses.

“The body language of the Supreme Court in saying that they don’t review their own judgments showed that they themselves realised that some of their earlier decisions were in error. In the case of Bayelsa, what they said was they there should an end to litigation. They did not say actually that the litigation was not meritorious. Then in the case of Imo, even one of the Justices dissented. So, I think that there is a seeming consensus that the Supreme Court justices are not infallible and because they are not infallible, we need to take steps to ensure that when they give judgments that cannot stand the test of justice, then something else can be done,” he said.

Onah called for an amendment of existing laws to include “a provision for review of judgments on constitutional grounds.” He also advised the National Assembly to make laws to stop the Supreme Court from taking away the powers of the electorate in elections.

“Elections are about the people not about any justice of the Supreme Court. In other words, even where they find a fault because of technicalities in an election, the highest thing they should be allowed to do is to cancel that election and order a re-run so that the people can vote again and decide who will be their leader. On no account should a court tell us who should be our governor or our representative. It is the prerogative of the people and it should not be taken away from them.

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“So, they should be seriously contained from putting their hands in elections. And I think the National Assembly should do that by making sure that they don’t have the final say on who governs any part of Nigeria. If they cancel an election, they should order a re-run.

“I mean the Bayelsa case is very pitiable because it is now coming out that the then deputy governor-elect that they sacked does not have any certificate problem at all. In such cases, they should not have given the final verdict; they should have returned it to the people to give the final verdict,” he said.

On further steps the apex court could take to reduce applications for review of its judgments given the flurry of such cases it adjudicated on lately, Onah said the court could not do anything “because they are the people who cause it.”

He added: “It is the type of judgment they have been giving that necessitated the calls. I agree that much of the calls are political but then it is because there is a basis for that. When you give a judgment that even ordinary people see that it cannot stand the test of time then you cannot stop the aggrieved party from calling for review. But I think the National Assembly can do a whole lot of things to curb the excesses of the Supreme Court and they just have to do that.

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“We know these justices. It is not as if they are angels. So, I also expect the anti-corruption agencies to beam the searchlight on them because this thing is making the people to lose hope even in institutions that are keeping some hope alive in the land. How can the people go to an election, win the election and be celebrating that they won and a group of five/seven old men and old women, some of who we know their husbands to be party agents, will void their victory and hand it to the loser? In fact, the whole thing is an insult on Nigerians.”

Speaking in the same vein, a former second Vice President of the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA), Monday Ubani, while calling for reforms in the electoral system that would guarantee free and fair elections and consequently reduce litigations to the barest minimum, stressed that the judiciary should be stripped of the power to truncate the mandate of the electorate.

His words: “We must try as much as possible to have our electoral mandate given to the people who will govern Nigeria from the polling unit and not by the judiciary. The judiciary cannot be allowed to be enthroning people who become the president or a governor, especially when the people have expressly given their mandate in electoral contest and in which somebody has emerged the winner. We should not allow a situation where a seven man, five man or three man panel will elect a leader for the people which is clearly at variance with what has been expressed at the polling unit because that is very key.

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“We must allow our electoral system to attain that level of fairness and credibility such that candidates will not need to be going to court often time and the court will now come and truncate the clear mandate of the people. If you see what transpired in Bayelsa, the man was removed through a pre-election matter whereas there has been an election proper in which the people expressed their mandate. The governor-elect was not even involved in that case but his deputy. In Imo too, what people have been saying is that the majority of Imolites voted for Ihedioha but you can see now that Uzodinma has come in by virtue of the Supreme Court judgment. So, we must try and develop our electoral system to be transparent and credible.

“And let me repeat for the umpteenth time that for us to have a free, fair and credible election in Nigeria, we must remove and reduce the perks of office for political office holders. What they are entitled to is so much. We must address it. When you address it, you will see that those who will be contesting to govern us are those who are actually qualified and want to render service to the people.”

The foregoing suggests that the apex court’s judgments on Bayelsa and Imo governorship tussles may have paved the way for further improvements on the Electoral Act and the Constitution. But the onus is on the National Assembly to embark on such exercise. Whether they would do so would be seen in the months ahead.

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