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Bayelsa governorship: Time to ‘amend’ judges, make Supreme Court supreme again

A reading of the perpetually-in-amendment Electoral Act, and the documents that constitute evidences for fighting electoral malpractices drops hints about the duplicity they entail. Judges, lawyers, and politicians act in tandem, exploiting the loopholes. The turns and tumbles of the Bayelsa State governorship election of November 16, 2019 is the latest ground to test the rules.

The judgment of the Bayelsa State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal that annulled the election of Duoye Diri of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) as governor of the state adds to the serial denouement of our laws. Did the Supreme Court not confirm him governor on February13, 2020, hours after David Lyon of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as governor-elect, had concluded rehearsals for the swearing in ceremony that was for the next day?

Lyon was winner of the November 16, 2019 election. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) announced 352, 552 votes for Lyon and 143, 172 votes for Diri. But the Supreme Court nullified Lyon’s election on the grounds that his deputy, Biobarakuma Degi-Eremienyo presented false information to INEC.

Degi-Eremienyo had different names in his various academic certificates. An affidavit he swore to harmonise the document finally bore a different name from what was on the INEC form. What was his defence?

The former chieftain of PDP said he had used the same documents to contest elections for decades. Interestingly, he remains a senator of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, in an election he won using the same documents.

Six months into his tenure, Diri would be heading to the court again. The little-known Advanced Nigeria Democratic Party (ANDP) approached the tribunal over its exclusion from the election. A two-one decision if the three-man panel ruled that INEC lacked the power to disqualify any candidate for an election. The tribunal asked INEC to hold a fresh election within 90 days.

Diri has since appealed the judgment.

Were this matter not election, the mystification of the law would have been more obvious. With elections everything is possible. The law becomes inexhaustible in one of the prominent disservices to the people.

Is the law truly an ass to be ridden as anyone pleases, especially those who have the resources to annex the law to themselves? What about the waste of public attention and funds on unnecessary elections?

A summary of how ANDP got this far:

Its deputy governorship candidate did not meet the constitutional requirement that anyone for the position must be at least 35. The party’s claim that the nominee was 38 years old contradicted another document where he was 34 years old. Both documents were filed with INEC.

Deadline for submission of nominations ended September 9, 2019.

INEC on September 13, 2019 drew the party’s attention to the fact that its candidate Peter Esinkuma David did not meet the age requirement.

INEC rejected substitute candidate, Janet Inowei, during the withdrawal/substitution window. INEC said an ineligible candidate could not be replaced. The law did not permit new candidates by that date.

The tribunal majority judgment saw Justice Yunusa Musa and Justice S. M. Owodunni ruling that ANDP nomination was valid. Justice Muhammed Sirajo, the tribunal chairman had a dissenting judgment that stated that the Electoral Act of 2010, amended in 2011 and further amended in 2015, according to Justice Sirajo, and Section 285 of the 1999 constitution as amended by the Fourth Alteration No. 21 Act, 2017 which was gazetted on 12 June 2018, disqualified ANDP.

Justice Sirajo further noted that the petition was a pre-election matter which the tribunal should not entertain. Again, the petition filed on February 26, 2020, five months after INEC’s decision to exclude ANDP, was way out of time. By the law, the action should have begun 14 days after INEC’s decision.

ANDP commenced the matter two weeks after the swearing in of Diri.

There was more. ANDP’s substitute candidate, Inowei was also ineligible. Born on November 26, 1984, according to her submission to INEC, she became 35 years old 10 days after the November 16, 2019 election.

Did the majority judgment consider these, among other contradictions of ANDP’s documentation with INEC? Are there no punishments for fielding ineligible candidates?

Among President Muhammadu Buhari, the National Assembly, and the Supreme Court (the National Judicial Council too) a certain understanding must be reached that laws provide orderliness in a society. How can our orderliness be sourced from legal confusions and uncertainties?

In the past 21 years of electing governments, votes are counting less with each election season. How can lower courts annul Supreme Court judgments?

What is the point of having a Supreme Court if an election petition tribunal can upturn its verdict? What sense does it make that the case would find its way back to the same Supreme Court with possibilities that an inferior court can again upturn the final verdict?

These are possible because elections have generated an economy of theirs implicating thousands of people across professions and skills sets. Billions of Naira is involved. The longer the contest for power, the longer the followers of the contenders have to make hay. Even their enemies are beneficiaries.

Some judges are becoming too eager to give rulings outside the law or in ways that suggest they do not bother with the evidences before them.

Pre-election matters should be concluded before elections. Is that not why they are so called?

Had this been the practice, the latest disruption in Bayelsa could have been avoided. Election matters can be concluded weeks before swearing in of elected officials.

More importantly, the Supreme Court cannot be the final court of the land if a mere tribunal can change its decisions.

Isiguzo, a major commentator on national minor issues, writes from Abuja

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