Prominent legal practitioners proffer solutions to electoral challenges in Nigeria at the annual Alao Aka-Bashorun Lecture
One of the features of true democracy is the right of people to choose their leaders. But the manner in which elections are conducted and electoral disputes resolved in Nigeria leaves much to be desired. Only a few governors such as Adams Oshiomhole of Edo State, Kayode Fayemi, Ekiti State, and Rauf Aregbesola of Osun State were lucky to have sought redress in a court of law and got their stolen mandates back after fruitless efforts at the election tribunals. There are still hundreds of election-related matters in various courts in the country today, and most of the petitioners have given up hope of ever getting justice.
This indeed was the thrust of this year’s Annual Alao Aka-Bashorun Lecture, which was organised by the Nigerian Bar Association, NBA, Ikeja branch on Thursday, May 1 at GRA, Ikeja, Lagos. The topic of the lecture, which was delivered by Yemi Osibajo, a Law professor and former Lagos State attorney-general and commissioner for justice, was Electoral Justice as a Panacea for Peaceful Transition. It came in the nick of time as the 2015 elections are just around the corner.
While delivering his address, Osibajo mentioned some unconstitutional decisions that the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, had taken as some of the factors militating against the conduct of credible elections in the country. He frowned at the situation in which INEC frustrates aggrieved candidates in election disputes by denying them electoral materials such as voters register, election results and other election forms which they can use to prove their cases at the tribunal. “INEC, which should be an independent, impartial electoral body and custodian of these documents, sets even stiffer obstacles in obtaining relevant documents required by the petitioner,” he alleged.
Osibajo also highlighted proof of genuineness of electoral materials, limited time for fair hearing as other issues that pose problems in resolving electoral disputes. He said the 180 days stipulated for the resolution of electoral disputes are too short, describing it as “a deadly virus that kills electoral justice” in the country.
He stressed that in electoral disputes fairness and expeditiousness are crucial to making government legitimate, credibility and stable. “This is not so in our environment where a winner-takes-all electoral system pervades, where power is not just a source of political but social relevance,” Osibajo enunciated. The professor of Law also noted that politicians are so desperate for power that they consider it a matter of life and death. “Because when disputes cannot be justly and judicially resolved, self-help is inevitable,” he said.
Muiz Banire, lawyer and former commissioner for environment, Lagos State, ostensibly spoke the minds of many when he said many politicians now prefer to resolve electoral irregularities by taking laws into their hands. “When they lose, they don’t bother coming to the tribunal because they see going to tribunal as a waste of time and resources. So they make sure they correct their mistakes on the field, and you know what that means,” he noted. However, for Monday Ubani, chairman, NBA, Ikeja branch, should this trend continue, it will be impossible for Nigeria to attain its desired goals. “Free and fair election is a sine qua non for growth and development,” he stressed.
Niyi Akintola, legal practitioner and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN, disagrees with Osibajo’s view that the 180 days stipulated in Section 285 of the constitution is not enough to settle electoral disputes because, according to Akintola, most of the delays in settlement of electoral disputes are largely caused by the petitioners themselves, corruption and “by the nature of our legal practice, which is accusatorial.” He also said “justice is done according to the law, not according to how you feel or how you want it to be.”
Akintola, a delegate at the ongoing National Conference, also blamed the political elites “because it is what they put in there that lawyers go to court to canvass and that is what the judges and justices are interpreting.” He also harped on the fact that he will make an effort to call the attention of other delegates at the conference to the subject, which is very paramount to the survival of the country’s nascent democracy.
However, Wole Olanipekun, former national president of the NBA, submitted that aside from the political elites, legal practitioners also contribute in no small measure to the poor electoral system in the country. Olanipekun decried some decision of the judiciary, which he said amounted to injustice in some electoral matters. The former NBA president said the Supreme Court is not doing enough to interpret the law in a way and manner that will make “us arrive at destination of justice.” Olanipekun, who had had cause to “confront” some Supreme Court justices on the irregularity in their decisions while resolving electoral, said it is illogical for Nigeria to keep changing the electoral law every four years. He also blamed the lawyers who betray the profession in a bid to win court cases especially electoral matters at all cost. “Woe betide that lawyer who will go and bribe a judge, or tell his client don’t worry I know the judge. What is the essence of law then?” he asked, adding that there will not be any electoral justice if there is not justice in the legal system.
Toeing Olanipekun’s line, Atinuke Aka-Bashorun, wife of Aka-Bashorun, the late legal luminary, urged lawyers to work in accordance with the principles of the profession. She also tasked them to consider their children’s future “by insisting to do the right thing anytime, anywhere.”
Osibajo stressed that members of the bench must strive to interpret the constitution in such a way that will support justice, so that people do not resort to self-help. “What we have found currently is that there is a technistic approach which ignores the ends of justice and at the end of the day when that happens, chaos will result,” he noted. Osibajo also said countries such as Sierra Leone and Somalia failed because the legal elites and the justice system failed. “When system of justice fails, people will resort to self-help; you will have militias, warlords and they will become the dispensers of justice. We can’t afford to go that same route,” he advised.
Other prominent legal practitioners at the lecture extolled the virtues and legacies of Aka-Bashorun, who was one of the brains behind the first National Conference in the country.