Opinion

Why a rise in court cases is bad for Nigeria’s democracy

One year after the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, courts are still busy deciding who the winners were in dozens of them.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari at a campaign rally ahead of the 2019 general elections.
Stefan Heunis/AFP via Getty Images

By Ini Dele-Adedeji, University of Bristol

One year after the 2019 general elections in Nigeria, courts are still busy deciding who the winners were in dozens of them.

One of the most recent cases was in Bayelsa State . The candidate of the All Progressives Congress was initially thought to have won the election. But, he was sacked by the Supreme Court 24 hours before his swearing-in ceremony because, the court found, his running mate had presented fake documents and was therefore disqualified. You can’t be a candidate without a qualified running mate.

There is also a case in Imo State. There, the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party was sworn into office like others on 29 May 2019. But he was removed by the Supreme Court following a dispute over the electoral result. In its ruling, the court declared the candidate of the All Progressives Congress the winner. He’d come fourth at the polls.

Looking at the rate at which courts, rather than the electorate, end up determining actual winners of the polls, is the credibility of the Nigerian elections at stake?

I believe the answer is yes.

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The power to determine who is elected into political office ought to be decided by voters. Judicial recourse is perfectly allowed and is preferable to extra-judicial measures to redress perceived electoral slights. But this should be an exceptional option taken to rectify an electoral impropriety of some sort.

But, it’s not the exception in Nigeria. The Independent National Electoral Commission recently announced that it had so far withdrawn 64 certificates of return –documents issued to election winners – and reissued them to people declared winners by courts of law following the 2019 general elections. The election saw 1,031 candidates contested for presidential, governorship, national assembly and state houses of assembly seats.

The reality is that there’s merit to a large majority of the cases brought before the law courts seeking electoral redress. This is because electoral malpractice has become part of Nigeria’s electoral culture. These malpractices take place before, during and after elections. Some of the most common examples include multiple thumb-printing, falsification of result sheets, fake ballot papers, manipulation of voter registration and the use of violence to disrupt voting.

The history

There is precedence for the Nigerian courts acting as a last resort in cases of electoral result disputes. Arguably the most monumental episode was the case between the late Obafemi Awolowo and late Shehu Shagari following the 1979 presidential election.

Awolowo, a Nigerian nationalist and statesman who played a key role in the country’s independence movement, was a presidential candidate of the Unity Party of Nigeria in that year’s poll. Shagari, was a presidential candidate of the National Party of Nigeria. Shagari won, emerging as Nigeria’s first democratically elected president.

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But Awolowo contested Shagari’s victory on the grounds that it had not satisfied the requirement in the electoral decree of the time that the winner had to secure one quarter of the votes cast in two thirds of all the states of the federation.

The election tribunal dismissed Awolowo’s claim and the case came before the Supreme Court. The judges also ruled in favour of Shagari except for the dissenting judgment of Justice Kayode Eso.

The current situation is different because of the rate at which election results are being annulled. This means that the courts are essentially determining the winners.

It unnecessarily places the courts and judges under the spotlight and the attendant pressure that comes with it, since it shifts the role of the judiciary from being an umpire to an arbiter.

Courts have upturned several electoral victories since after the 2019 polls.
Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images

Weaknesses in the system

Nigeria has a strong Electoral Act. It has been amended a few times over the years and it is not different from the electoral constitutions being used in other democratic climes.

But the law can only go so far. The bigger problem is an absence of strong democratic institutions to support it. The strengthening of democratic institutions, I would argue, would result in an increase in free and fair elections.


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In particular the electoral commission and the police force need to be strengthened. The police are usually left out during elections. Instead of being trained and given the wherewithal to assist electoral commission officials in safeguarding voters, electoral officials and ballot centres, the army is usually deployed during elections. This puts the police and army at cross purposes. It also increases the possibility of violence ensuing.

Another problem is the Independent National Electoral Commission. The root of a lot of the election-related cases brought before the courts can be traced to its limited ability to anticipate and address known recurring election-related problems. Examples include it’s inability to secure ballot boxes and tally votes in a timely fashion.

These things could be achieved if the commission was strengthened by the executive and given the statutory, logistical, financial support, and independence it requires.

Voters are often left with a shorter end of the stick.
Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Who benefits?

Politicians – and those close to them – are the only ones to benefit from the current state of affairs. The Nigerian voting public will always come off worse. This is because voters are likely to become apathetic about voting if they feel that their vote doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Low voter turnout is an indictment of the electoral process.

In addition, the argument over whether the courts are partial or impartial is a moot one. The fact remains that appointments to positions in almost every aspect of Nigeria’s public sector are politically influenced. Nigerians are, therefore, right to question the partiality – or otherwise – of the courts.

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The current trend also has the potential to embolden politicians to forego the polls and instead try to “win” elections by influencing the judiciary in underhand ways.

Making a habit of by-passing elections as a means of determining elected officials due to electoral irregularities, and forcing the judiciary to constantly have to annul elections doesn’t bode well for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy.


Ini Dele-Adedeji, Research Associate, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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