With the conclusion of the 2023 general election in Nigeria, attention has now shifted to the election petition tribunal where candidates who contested in the elections and are dissatisfied with their results aim to get justice, depending on how convincing they are able to prove their before the judges.
The polling unit was the arena of electoral competition a few weeks ago, but the courts have taken the centre stage as the new arena for electoral contests across the country.
Despite promises by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the expectations of Nigerians were not met in the conduct of the 2023 general election.
Opposition parties, particularly the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the Labour Party (LP), have expressed dissatisfaction with the conduct of the poll, particularly INEC’s failure to transmit the presidential election results electronically through the use of Bimodal Voter Accreditation System (BVAS) from the polling units immediately after the close of the poll on INEC result viewing portal (IReV) as promised.
Observers expect that there will be a high volume of petitions from aggrieved candidates at tribunals across Nigeria, just like in previous elections, considering the irregularities which trailed the polls.
In Lagos, the state governorship, national and state House of assembly election petition tribunal has received a total of 48 petitions in respect of the 2023 elections held on Feb 25th and March 11 when BusinessDay checked at the secretariat of the tribunal at Court 6, of the Rosaline Omotoso Courthouse sitting in the Ikeja last week.
Particularly more keenly followed is the case filed by opposition parties and defeated governorship candidates, aiming to unseat incumbent and winner of the March 11 election in the state, Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC)
A breakdown of the petitions as obtained from the Secretariat shows that four petitions were filed to challenge the governorship election.
Those who filed are the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Abdul-Azeez Adediran; as well as the Labour Party (LP) governorship candidate, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour who filed as the sole petitioner.
Others are the Allied People’s Movement (APM) and the Action People’s Party (APP).
The Tribunal also received five petitions from five Senatorial candidates and 26 Petitions from House of Representatives candidates that lost during the February 25 Presidential and National Assembly elections while a total of 13 petitions were filed to challenge the elections into the State House of Assembly.
For the governorship elections, the candidate of LP, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, listed three grounds on which his petition is based. He alleged that Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu was at the time of election, not qualified to contest the election.
He also stated that the election of Sanwo-Olu was invalid by reason of corrupt practices or non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act 2022 and the Constitution.
The third ground was to the effect that Sanwo-Olu was not duly elected by majority of the lawful votes cast at the election.
He asked the tribunal to nullify Sanwo-Olu’s return and declare him the winner of the elections.
In the petition filed by Abdul-Azeez Adediran and his party the PDP, the petitioners listed two grounds of appeal to the effect that the Governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu and his deputy, Obafemi Hamzat were at the time of election not qualified to contest.
Adediran also stated that the governorship candidate of the Labour Party, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour who was declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) as having scored the second highest number of votes was, at the time of the election, also not qualified to contest.
While INEC is the first respondent, Babajide Sanwo-Olu; Obafemi Hamzat, APC; Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour, and the LP are listed as the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th respondent respectively.
The PDP governorship candidate said he was calling for the disqualification of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the Labour Party (LP) candidates in the election for non-compliance with the Electoral Act 2022 as well as the guidelines of INEC.
Adediran also asked that all votes cast for them in the election be declared wasted.
Sanwo-Olu polled 762,134 votes to defeat Rhodes-Vivour, his closest rival who scored 312,329 votes while Adediran who came third garnered 62,449 votes in the poll.
For the Allied Peoples Movement (APM) and Action People’s Party (APP) who also filed petitions to challenge Sanwo-Olu’s victory, both parties did not include their candidates, the only female governorship candidates in the race, Funmilayo Kupoluyi and Abiola Adeyemi, in their petitions.
Both parties argued in their separate petitions that Sanwo-Olu and his deputy were not qualified to contest the election and that INEC failed to comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution.
Apart from the governorship polls, petitions were also filed to challenge the victories of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, former Deputy Governor of Lagos, Oluranti Adebule and James Abiodun Faleke, who served as the Secretary of the Tinubu/Shettima Campaign Organisation for the 2023 Presidential Elections.
An election tribunal has 180 days from the date of filing to hear and determine an election petition. Any petition determined outside 180 days is invalid. An appeal against the decision of an election tribunal is also constitutionally timebound, as it is provided that any person displeased with the decision of the national/state assembly or governorship election tribunal must file a notice of appeal in the registry of the tribunal or court within 21 days from the decision date.
It is pertinent to note that only governorship and presidential election petitions can get to the Supreme Court.
The court of appeal’s decision in cases involving national and state assemblies’ election petitions is final and cannot be further appealed.
However, gubernatorial election petition is expected to last up to ten months, leading up to the Supreme Court its final destination.
An appeal against the decision of the tribunal must be disposed of by the appellate courts (Court of Appeal and Supreme Court) within 60 days from the date of the delivery of judgment by the Tribunal or Court.
In addition, appeals from the decision of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court shall be filed within 14 days from the date the decision appealed against was delivered.
Constitutional lawyer and activist, Idowu Omolegan, said he was pessimistic about the chances of aggrieved candidates getting justice in court, noting that Nigeria must conduct free and fair polls, rather than allow the court to decide the winner of election to check bad governance and accountability.
According to Omolegan,“I don’t think there is justice in electoral petition matters across the world, particularly in Nigeria, what we have is that one court would give justice, another court would uphold it.
“You can see what we had in Osun, the tribunal ruled against the governor, but he won in the Court of Appeal and they are now in the Supreme Court.
“I know cases would always be taken to tribunal by aggrieved candidates no matter how perfect the election was; even in the advanced democracies we have them, it is the same.
“But Nigeria must work to give credibility to our elections, so that the winner would be decided by the people and not the court or tribunal.
“What we have now, is a system where you manipulate elections for your person, and ask the aggrieved to go to court, because you know that chance of getting justice in court is probably slim.
“We have to do that so that the right candidates can emerge during elections, to give us purposeful leadership.”
Adedeji Adeyemi, a senior constitutional lawyer, said that it was not a bad idea that election petition cases are decided timely, however, in the interest of fair hearing, an important principle of natural justice, parties are given the opportunity to make their cases.
“It is in the interest of justice that parties are not hastened to make mistakes so that they do not come up to say that there was not enough time to prepare their cases,” Adeyemi said.
The lawyer said it was wrong to assume that judges had a predetermined position before hearing an election petition case.