The inauguration ceremony of Nigeria’s next president is imminent. The presidential election petition tribunal has since commenced pre-hearing sessions on the petitions filed by aggrieved political parties contesting the outcome of the 2023 general election The litigation of these election petitions may span up till the end of the year, as aggrieved parties still have the right to challenge the outcome of the decision of the tribunal at the Supreme Court.
The petitions filed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the Labour Party (LP) and their respective presidential candidates continue to evoke divergent views on the electoral process in Nigeria. The Action Alliance (AA) and Action Peoples Party (APP) had earlier withdrawn their respective petitions challenging the outcome of the presidential election.
The complaint of these political parties and their candidates range from non-compliance with statutory provisions on the nomination and qualification of candidates to the office of the President and Vice President of Nigeria, to the non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, 2022 on the conduct of elections.
The recondite nature of the issues raised in the petitions, particularly the recent amendments allowing for electronic transmission of result in the Electoral Act of 2022, has sparked anxiety in the minds of the electorates.
Live telecast of proceedings
Peter Obi and Alhaji Atiku Abubakar on behalf of the Labour Party and PDP respectively, prayed the court for an order permitting the live telecast of the proceedings. Both argued that the case before the court was a dispute over the outcome of the presidential election held on February 25, and thus a matter of national significance and public interest.
Chief Uche SAN was quoted to have said; “With the huge and tremendous technological advances and developments in Nigeria and beyond, including the current trend by this court towards embracing electronic procedures, virtual hearing and electronic filing, a departure from the rules to allow a regulated televising of the proceedings in this matter is in consonance with the maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. Televising court proceedings is not alien to this court and will enhance public confidence.”
Understanding the impact of live streaming of judicial proceedings
By the provisions of the Nigerian Constitution, the requirements of publicity and public access to trial are entrenched in our laws. The objectives of live streaming go far beyond the litigants in a lawsuit. Particularly with regard to election petitions where the electorate are participants in the electoral process and keenly interested in its outcome.
There are several interested parties in the process to resolve any dispute in connection with the election, and they can be said to be indirect parties to the suit. The importance of live streaming in a dispute challenging the outcome of an election is an issue of public, national concern, or interest. Thus, live streaming is done in the interest of the public, and not to aid the case of any party.
The counter-argument that lawyers and witnesses are likely to turn the courtroom into theatrics advances the argument no further. The lawyers and indeed witnesses typically prone to theatrics will conduct themselves dramatically regardless of whether the court permits live coverage.
Live streaming of court proceedings ordinarily serves as an instrument for greater accountability and transparency, especially on the part of participants in the judicial proceedings, judges, lawyers, parties and witnesses, etc. Live streaming further upholds the principle of law that says; justice should not only be done, but that it should also be seen to be done.
If court proceedings are observed real-time, the menace of fake news and fallacious media reporting will be substantially diminished. The Court of Appeal rules reinforces public access to its proceedings by clearly stating that “virtual hearing shall be by means of any audiovisual platform approved by the Court and a link will be provided to enable the public to observe the virtual proceedings”.
Live streaming disallowed by the Court
The court refused the prayer to cover the proceeding live. The philosophy behind the refusal is revealed by Justice Tsammani who read the ruling. His lordship cited section 36 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, which provides for fair hearing and held, inter alia, that: “it does not amount to conducting court sittings on television or in a stadium or a market square.”
The Justice Tsammani led panel found that the application is a novel one in the country. It is not provided for in any of our rules or procedures. The court also further held that the case of Oscar Pistorius, O.J Simpsons and others cited by the petitioners in their application did not apply to the Nigerian judiciary.
The court was unpersuaded by the argument that public access to justice and transparency are universal concepts requiring no specific law. Also rejected was the contention that the constitutional provision ought to have been sufficient to justify the contrary position.
Refusing to allow television coverage may further undermine confidence in the judicial process should the petitioners fail to overturn the election. A system already lacking in trust, this ruling may ostensibly buttress a compelling argument that the public was shut out because the outcome of proceedings may have been predetermined.
The ruling of the court refusing live coverage is generating intense debate amongst electoral stakeholders. Scholars argue the National Assembly must now consider the urgent need to develop a regulatory framework to put in place live streaming of court proceedings.
Another school of thought contends that the National Judicial Council saddled with the responsibility of providing a focal point of efficiency uniformity and improvement of judicial services, both at the superior and inferior court of records, may simply have to issue a policy statement.
After all, it was by virtue of a policy statement that virtual hearing was introduced and transformed into practice directives of the various courts. It is likely that the petitioners will appeal this decision. The Supreme Court may yet have the opportunity to come to a different conclusion.
This may be of no immediate benefit to the contesting parties, and the electorate but the apex court will be setting an excellent precedent for posterity. Such a decision is likely to infuse a refreshing level of confidence in dispute resolution generally. More so with an election petition of this character, where the principal complaint is that results were not transmitted electronically to INEC’s portal as provided by the electoral guidelines.
As the pre-hearing sessions have finally come to an end, and the hearing of the substantive petitions are set to commence from May 30, 2023. The entire proceedings enabling witnesses to testify about allegations of malpractices and subjecting those same facts to vigorous cross-examination is bound to prove engaging.
There is no doubt that the entire nation is likely to be held spellbound until a verdict is delivered on or before the 16th of November.