By Ugochukwu Ejinkeonye
The decision of the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Atiku Abubakar, to wage a legal challenge against the proclamation of President Muhammadu Buhari the winner of February 23, 2019, presidential election has not received the encouragement of a few informed minds in the country. One respected voice, for instance, thinks that Atiku should instead join hands with other well-meaning Nigerians, the civil society and like-minded politicians to help to properly set up and strengthen democratic structures capable of hamstringing the repeat in future elections of the large-scale malpractices that allegedly marred the last elections – an issue that constitutes the main plank of Atiku’s suit.
To my mind, the two positions need not be mutually exclusive. While Atiku assembles his legal team for a formidable challenge against what many have dismissed as a grand mockery of the electoral process, he can also, at the same time, join forces with others to build and fortify our democratic structures. The two very important assignments can comfortably run hand-in-hand. The people whose views do not qualify for attention here are those Nigerians (some purporting to be “non-partisan” intellectuals) who argue that Atiku’s decision to go to court is a needless distraction and pure waste of time and resources, since going by the announcement of Buhari as winner by the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, and presentation of Certificate of Return to him, he should be regarded as having been validly reelected.
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What was required now is for everyone to forget whatever reservations (or even grievances) they have about the elections, rally around the president and ensure he did the right things this time around to “move the country forward.” I beg to disagree. Electoral malpractices seem to have been accepted as a way of life in Nigeria, a permanent feature in our elections, so much so, that some people might even express genuine disappointment that an election has lost its familiar character, in fact, its shine, if it was not marred by these malpractices.
And so, our politicians now unleash them with the most sickening brazenness – with utmost impunity. Some even add a touch of fanfare to it. And this is largely because of the growing belief that no consequences would ever follow. Anybody, therefore, who would help to lawfully destroy this toxic mindset will always enjoy my generous support. That now makes it clear that this position has more to do with the sanitization of our democratic process than with Atiku as a person (or politician) and the PDP as party. It just happens that they are the ones launching the major legal challenge at this point in time. It could have as well applied to anybody or any party.
The judiciary has a pivotal role to play here. As the arm of government that has received the worst form of battering, especially, under the present regime, moments like these when people come to the courts to challenge alleged electoral infractions to present excellent opportunities for this very sensitive arm of government to clearly demonstrate that it is neither inferior nor an appendage to the other arms, especially, the executive. It should summon the courage to clearly demonstrate that its loyalty is first to the country, her laws and institutions and not any individual or regime no matter how authoritarian.
As politicians approach the courts to present cases of alleged fraudulent practices during elections, including the one filed by Atiku Abubakar, the learned judges must realise that the integrity of the judiciary and even its continued existence and relevance as a revered arm of government is dependent on the firm, fair and just judgments delivered at the courts. On no account should the judges allow politicians to intimidate them into using their own hands to undermine the dignified status of the judicial arm of government.
I want to see every politician (without an exception) who gained public office through any kind of electoral malfeasance to not only be booted out by the court but also recommended for trial for grievous infractions against the country’s democratic process and laws. This is the only way to deter desperate characters who have no respect for any organised systems and before whom nothing is sacred. Aggrieved politicians should have the patience to prosecute their legal challenges against electoral robberies to their logical conclusions and ensure that justice is seen to have been done.
If the judiciary would continue to enjoy the respect and sympathy of Nigerian people, it is totally in its hands to ensure that. The recent move to desecrate and ride roughshod on it through the reckless and illegal suspension of the Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, attracted widespread local and international condemnation, and that was an unambiguous demonstration that the civilised world jealously retains a strong abhorrence of any attempt to intimidate the judiciary and tamper with its independence. It is not about the persons that occupy those offices, but about the offices themselves which will remain long after their occupiers have left. We must protect these institutions with all our will and strength. If therefore, Atiku’s case has merit, the judiciary should have no inhibitions upturning the election that returned President Buhari to the office.
But if Atiku fails to prove his case, the judiciary should equally summon the courage to say so unambiguously in its ruling, and it would be clear that justice has been fairly served. We as a country should be able to make it clear that we can no longer tolerate the desecration of our institutions by public officers. To continue to allow that is to give our blessing to anarchy which will always return to haunt us and stall our progress as a people and country. Nobody, therefore, no matter the office he occupies, should treat the ruling of a court of competent jurisdiction with scorn. Such a person should be seen as treating the whole of Nigeria and her people with disdain and that must be strongly rejected.
Only recently, in September 2017, Kenya became the first country in Africa to have her Supreme Court annulled a presidential election. Nobody saw it as an attempt by the judiciary to “humiliate” the president, because, in Kenya, the country and her institutions are higher than any individual or political party. Shamefully, this is very far from being the case in Nigeria, where public officers allow their oversized egos to goad them into the delusive belief that by virtue of their positions they are higher than the country, her people and institutions. While the political parties in Kenya are desirous of acquiring and retaining power, they are also mindful of preserving their institutions which will still be there with the people after the expiration of each regime.
Reacting to the annulment, the BBC observed that “regardless of the winners and losers following the ruling, this is a proud moment for Kenya. The litigation and debate on the merits of the election were done at the Supreme Court and not on the streets.” I hope that Nigerians who allow religious or ethnic intoxicants or both, to push them into lethal extremities whenever attempts are made to subject their “idols” to the dictates of organised systems should learn from this.
Fortunately for Atiku, he has behind him Mr Peter Obi, a man who became governor of Anambra State by waging about three years battle against the result of an election which he was firmly convinced was massively manipulated to deny him victory. After a long tortuous legal expedition, the Supreme Court gave him justice and he was sworn into office. He then commenced the second leg of his legal battle, this time, to seek a judicial definition of when exactly a public officer’s tenure should commence; should it be taken that part of his tenure was executed on his behalf by the usurper who had rigged himself into office, as was widely believed in Nigeria at that time?
In a landmark ruling, the Supreme Court agreed with Obi and his lawyers that the tenure of an elected official should start counting the very day he was sworn into office until the four years statutorily allocated to him to spend in office elapses. Many politicians have been beneficiaries of this illustrious legal battle prosecuted and won through one man’s diligence and perseverance.
Now, there are Nigerians who consider it unthinkable that certain elections into certain “high offices” like that of the president can be upturned by the court. Some small minds even suggest that such a development is capable of “destabilising” the country! This is one myth that must be shattered if we must make progress and build solid structures for our democracy and nationhood.