On Wednesday last week, October 30, the Supreme Court delivered its verdict on the legal dispute that followed the February 23, 2019 presidential election. In its ruling delivered by Chief Justice of Nigeria Justice Ibrahim Tanko Mohammed, the 7-member panel dismissed the appeal filed by former vice president and PDP candidate in the election Atiku Abubakar against the ruling last month of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal led by Justice Mohammed Garba.
CJN Mohammed affirmed President Muhammadu Buhari’s victory in the election. He agreed with the election tribunal that there was no merit in Atiku and PDP’s appeal. Atiku and his party had filed 66 grounds of appeal against the tribunal’s ruling, alleging that malpractices marred the election. They earlier argued at the tribunal that APC candidate Buhari was not qualified to contest the election due to lack of educational qualifications, and also that an INEC server recorded that Atiku won the election. All these pleas failed at both the tribunal and at the Supreme Court.
In truth, there were curious things that happened around last week’s verdict. First, the apex court refused to disclose members of the panel that would sit on the appeal. PDP had made strident efforts to politicise the panel’s composition, saying it must respect “seniority,” i.e. justices that it thought had PDP sympathies. In the event, the panel members were only disclosed on Wednesday. Secondly, most Nigerians thought it was hearing of the appeal that was to start last Wednesday, based on an earlier announcement by PDP lawyers. In the event, Supreme Court delivered its ruling that day. The Chief Justice said the panel had already been reviewing the case, privately, for two weeks, hence its apparent hasty conclusion.
The third curiosity was that the justices dismissed the appeal without stating the full reasons. They instead promised to do so at a later date. This was not totally unheard of because back in 2011-13, some election tribunals and the Supreme Court delivered some rulings but deferred giving the reasons to a later date. The law, however, empowers only the Supreme Court to do so.
Dismissal of Atiku’s appeal confirmed a pattern established since the Second Republic of upholding the victory of incumbents. The presidential elections of 1979, 1983, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2019 were all challenged in court up to Supreme Court level. Not one of them succeeded. It was only in 2015 that President Jonathan decided not to go to court to challenge the election result. Incidentally, President Buhari, whose election was upheld last Wednesday, was the loser at the Supreme Court in three of those presidential election cases, namely 2003, 2007 and 2011.
Under the 1999 Constitution as amended, Supreme Court is the final stop in litigation, electoral or otherwise. We congratulate Atiku Abubakar and PDP for their strict adherence to the judicial process in venting their unhappiness with the election outcome. We urge them to go back to the drawing board and learn lessons in readiness for future elections, which are only three and a half years away.
As for President Buhari, now that he has election cases behind him, he should fully concentrate on governance and in justifying the mandate reposed in him by the electorate. Given his total experience with elections and election litigation, we also advise him to continue the task of improving politics and election culture in Nigeria in order to reduce too much litigation in the future. Enhancing the independence of the judiciary is also an urgent task so that the perception in some quarters that odds are unduly placed in the way of election petitioners should be eliminated.