Barring any unforeseen circumstances, the presidential elections petition tribunal (PEPT), is expected to deliver its judgment sometime in September.
As it does so, Nigerians are bearing witness to the type of electoral legal issues that can occur when elections are not properly managed.
The International Crisis Group in a May 2023 report posited that, “the electoral commission’s failure to collate ballots transparently and questions about Tinubu’s eligibility for the top post have prompted legal challenges to the results.”
As citizens go through the throes of a devastating economy that has taken an incapacitating toll on them, many are looking to the outcome of the elections’ petitions for a reset.
Read also: Tinubu, APC have no reason to undermine judiciary – Presidency
For others, especially the supporters of incumbent President, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, they would be hoping for a judicial affirmation of his February victory.
Tinubu, the flag bearer of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was declared as the winner of the February 25 election after scoring 8,794,726 votes.
Upset by the outcome, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, and Peter Obi, the Labour Party (LP) candidate, are challenging Tinubu’s victory.
The judicial inquest into the outcome of the presidential elections is itself part of the electoral process that would only come to an end when the supreme court delivers its conclusions from the inquiry.
Nigeria’s Electoral Act says the tribunal has 180 days to determine the petitions. The court is expected to round off all its activities on or before September 16, 2023.
Democracy, noted Attorney and Professor of Practice in International Human Rights Law at the Fletcher School, Chidi Odinkalu, “may be about choices and decisions by citizens in theory. As practised in Nigeria, however, citizens are mostly spectators. In every election, Nigeria’s judges have the final votes.”
The heightened role of judges in elections, he further noted, is essentially a feature of the presidential system of government.
The outcome of Nigeria’s presidential elections since 1979 have nearly always ended in the courts for adjudication. The results declared by the election managers have always been affirmed by the courts.
In 2019, Nigeria’s top court dismissed an appeal by main opposition candidate Atiku Abubakar to overturn the result of that year’s presidential vote in which President Muhammadu Buhari won re-election.
Yet, every piece of evidence, Odinkalu divined, points to the likelihood that this will be no ordinary season.
Nigeria’s judiciary has a massive trust deficit among the citizens. Many do not trust the judiciary to do right by Nigerians. Increasingly, Nigeria’s courts have become courts of technicality rather than courts of justice.
Technical legal rules, says Attorney, Castro Ginigeme “are supposed to be a guide to justice not a tool to thwart justice. But in Nigeria, the latter seems to be the rule.
“I doubt if they would do the right thing,” Ginigeme argues.
“I want to be shocked. Even if the tribunal does the right thing, the Supreme Court could reverse it. The corruption in the judiciary is shocking. It is unbelievable. There is a lot of corruption there. The Supreme Court has no credibility. They are all corrupt.”
Election petitions, Odinkalu further added, “have become a preoccupation of judges in Nigeria and around Africa and a defining process in public perception of the courts. In the past, they provided moments of high forensic and judicial drama.
“Increasingly, however, they have become performative rituals for sanctifying electoral burglary and celebrating judicial capture. The beneficiaries are the burglars and the judges.”
For Nigerians, the judgment of the court matters. Mr. Tinubu’s victory at the polls in February generated little popular enthusiasm. He had urged his aggrieved opponents who said he stole victory from them, to go to court.
Jubilee Ogwoja, a building contractor in Abuja believes that, “Nigerians would be happy if the court removes Mr. Tinubu as president. I was listening to a radio station yesterday and everyone who called in except one person said they did not vote Tinubu. This is an illegal government and I hope the court removes him.”
Mr. Tinubu’s economic policies since his assumption as president has been broadly hailed as rational but universally condemned for its devastating impact on Nigerians.
Tinubu had, immediately after replacing his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari, abolished the fuel subsidy regime, a decision that instantly triggered a 300 percent increase in the pump price of petrol, a strategic commodity that influences pricing and cost in other sectors of the economy.
His unification of the foreign exchange rates has seen the local currency fall sharply down the abyss.
Tinubu might have endeared himself to the economic elite, but to the silent majority of Nigerians trammelled by his economic policies, He is as bad as his predecessor, Muhammadu Buhari.
“The problem is not to hit the ground running, it is about running with sense. This tax collector is about to deepen our misery index without building the economy to allow us pay the taxes,” Kiyitwe, an engineer in Jos, the plateau state capital said.
Tinubu’s legal team put the country on edge last week when they alluded to the possibility of anarchy if their client wasn’t allowed to continue as president.
Tinubu lawyers, led by Wole Olanipekun, admitted his failure to score 25 percent of votes cast in Nigeria’s capital Abuja but said it was insufficient to overturn his victory as declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC.
“Any other interpretation different from this will lead to absurdity, chaos, anarchy and alteration of the very intention of the legislature.”
While acute polarisation following elections in Nigeria are not uncommon, the president’s retort to the threat of anarchy left many riled.
Twitter user, @MalcomInfiniti, said, “Tinubu warning the Tribunal that his removal as president may trigger anarchy is a threat and blackmail of the judiciary. When the election was rigged, the opposition did not take to violence. You asked them to go to court. Now you are in court; you are preaching violence.”
The threat of Kafkaesque violence from the president telegraphed by his lawyers comes a few days after Julius Abure, the national chairman of the Labour Party, LP, charged party members to prepare for a possible rerun of presidential the elections.
He said he had been informed that President Bola Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress (APC) led government was also getting set for a rerun.
“Those in government are already planning for rerun and this is one of the support we will be canvasing from you. We should also be getting prepared because since all those in government are already preparing for rerun we too should not be taken unawares.”
The problem with a rerun, Castro Ginigeme posits, “is to give somebody who lost a race a second bite at the apple. If you have undeniable evidence that someone lost and someone won, then you do not need a rerun. A rerun is a denial of due victory on one hand and giving an advantage to the loser by giving him a second bite at the apple on the other hand.
“So, who is going to manage the elections? Yakubu and his INEC?”
Like most other reports by international observers, the European Union Election Observ¬er Mission to Nigeria during the 2023 general elections criticised the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over the body’s mismanagement and conduct of the elections.
It said the election lacked trans¬parency, was not inclusive, and fell short of benchmarks and standards the commission set for itself, eroding gains made over time in the nation’s democratic process.
“I would not trust INEC under Mahmood Yakubu to organise an election in his family not to talk of organising a rerun for Nigeria,” Segun Olupitan, a dentist in Abuja declared.
Perhaps, one of the biggest impacts of this legal drama for Nigerians and INEC, would be how to ensure a free, fair and safe process for voting. INEC should learn how and why it is critical to remove any non-legitimate impediments to voting, because the right to vote is an earmark of our democracy.
Nigerians just want to vote and have their votes counted. They want their votes to matter. They do not want judges to determine who their leaders would be.
“It is unlikely that a change in the leadership of the country driven by a court judgment will lead to anarchy. It is also unlikely that a continuation of President Tinubu’s presidency would lead to violence. It might only lead to coalesced and continuous resentment against a government many regard as illegal,” an observer said.