Chief Chris Uche is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, (SAN), with 35 years of cognitive experience. The Abuja-based lawyer believes that as Nigeria improves on its practice of democracy, the number of electoral disputes will drop; and with reasonably free and fair elections, in which losers accept the results, not every matter will be challenged up to the Supreme Court. He spoke on this and other pressing issues to PETER FOWOYO.
The Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Mahmoud Mohammed, recently, disclosed that over 5,000 cases were pending before the Supreme Court, some since 2005. What is the way out?
Well, I think the situation we have didn’t start today. I thank the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Hon. Justice Mahmud Mohammed, for the remarkable steps he took to decongest the apex court. He is, eminently, revered in the legal community as a straightforward, brilliant and silent achiever. I am sure he has in place an effective programme for decongestion. Several panels now sit and dates for hearing are now being given to cases easily, without delay. If your case is urgent, and you file an application for accelerated hearing, you are very likely to be heard. I think the relevant authorities may now have to fashion ways to reduce the number of interlocutory appeals that gets to the Supreme Court, because that is what is causing the congestion. Again, the Legislature may have not re-considered the constitutional amendment that opened the window for governorship election appeals to get to the Supreme Court, whereas they, hitherto, ended at the Court of Appeal. Imagine the number of contestants from 36 states, and the Federal Capital Territory, with every outcome of election being disputed.
Some of these cases should be made to terminate at the Court of Appeal. That will reduce the workload of the apex court and now that there are more panels sitting, this would help to decongest the apex court. I also believe that as Nigeria deepens its practice of democracy, it would reduce the number of electoral disputes, because if we have a reasonably free and fair election, that even the loser accepts the result, then, not every matter will be challenged up to the Supreme Court.
I think there is a need for us to deepen our practice of democracy, not only in the general election, even in primary elections, because that is where you have the biggest problem, the primary election disputes, sometimes, get to the Supreme Court. When you’re talking of pre-election matters, they get to the Supreme Court and this is because the political parties that are supposed to be the roots of democracy are not practising internal democracy, there is much crisis which degenerates into disputes.
I believe the time has come for the parties to structure the nomination of their candidates, they need to have a federal structure during their primary elections, it is not fair that the leaders sit at the national level to choose candidates for the state or local government chapter whose delegates they don’t even know, this, usually, leads to the imposition of candidates. The state chapters should be allowed some degree of involvement and a bit of autonomy in the process of primary election.
What the party’s national headquarters should do is to send a monitoring team that would make sure that its guidelines for elections are complied with. But, in a situation where only its National Chairman and Secretary dictate who becomes who (even in mere election of
delegates), or where same is contracted or relinquished to the State Governor, then there would be problems that would, eventually, degenerate into disputes and you cannot stop people from going to the law court to challenge such imposition, but, if those concerned try to be as fair as possible, then the workload of the apex court reduces. I believe that is the area we have to address.
Speculations are rife that the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) may send the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) boss, Professor Attahiru Jega on a terminal leave and pave the way for a malleable successor before the general election. Is this constitutional?
Constitutionally, a political party has no role in the appointment or removal of the Chairman of INEC. Even the President, who appoints him has a limited role, in the sense that he can only remove him after a two third majority confirmation by the Senate, so, just like you have described it, these are speculations. A political party may wish, for whatever reasons, genuine or otherwise, why it may want Jega out of office, but, it does not have any constitutional role to play in the process and if there is a need for the President to force him out of office, that can only be done by a two third majority of the Senate passing a resolution to that effect. But, a political party cannot, and by the way, the man is already on his way out.
There are calls that the Federal Government should obey the Court of Appeal judgment by keeping the military out of elections. Do the Armed Forces have any role to play in the country’s general election?
Generally speaking, the Armed Forces of any country have no role, whatsoever, in the conduct of an election. Security during such period is the constitutional role of the Nigeria Police, but, in the present circumstance, where it is a common knowledge that Nigeria is undergoing serious security challenges, everybody knows what is happening, not only in the North East, but, all over the country, Yes, I think it might be a little unreasonable to exclude the military from participating in the elections, not in the sense of playing any role in the conduct of an election, but in the sense of assisting the Police to provide security.
I believe that even if the Constitution has not assigned any specific role to them during elections, given the exigencies of the moment, it is only reasonable for that to happen and, even the President, as the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, has the constitutional power to order the military to undertake any role, but, even without him doing that, I, strongly, believe that and I think many Nigerians will ascribe to the opinion, that it is necessary, just imagine people going out to vote and there is a likelihood of suicide bombers striking, not only in the North East but the entire country, so, I think there is a need for them to be available during the elections.
Having the Army present will inspire confidence and a sense of security in the people, even seeing the armed soldiers around will discourage those who might want to cause confusion. I would suggest that, even, if there is no specific constitutional role, so long as there is no specific constitutional prohibition, I think the presence of the Nigerian Army is necessary in this general election, in which everybody is so scared about the outbreak of violence, about interference from this insurgency, I think it’s only reasonable that the military should be invited to assist, moreover, this is not even their first time, most of these elections that have come and gone, between 2011 and now, the state elections, even where the opposition won, military participated in providing security.
I think what we should just concern ourselves with is how to ensure that the military is detached, that they don’t take part in any partisan position as far as their job is concerned, if it is just to be there to provide security, just like they have done in other elections, where the opposition party won and the ruling party also won in others, I think it only stands to reason that they should provide security. Personally, if I want to go out there and vote, the presence of a military man will give me the confidence that the place is safe, I know the Police are all there too, but, the Army will play a complementary role in the provision of security and this would assure the people that they can, simply, go out to vote and be safe.
But if we take into consideration the Ekiti State saga, where it was alleged that the military was involved in rigging the election in favour of the incumbent governor, will you still think the military should participate under the guise of safeguarding polling centres?
Well, I think the answer lies clearly and squarely in the Osun State gubernatorial election experience. That election came also just about the same time as that of Ekiti State and the military also played a security role, but, was accused by the All Progressives Congress (APC) and yet APC allegedly won (the victory is being seriously challenged in Court). I don’t think the mere presence of the military, automatically, transforms to bias for the ruling party.
The INEC has improved upon the voting system with the introduction of the Permanent Voter’s Card (PVC). Do you think this is in line with the Electoral Act, which prohibits electronic voting?
I don’t think there are inconsistencies there, what, actually, is the PVC? It is just a Permanent Voter’s Card, replacing the previous Temporary Voter’s Card, there is nothing in the law that prohibits the use of PVC, it’s just that it is called PVC, because we have the biometric details of the voter in the card? That does not translate into electronic voting, electronic voting is quite a different concept where the system is on and then you press a button, which translates into e-voting.
This is quite different, it is like an identification that makes sure that a particular individual is the owner of a card which he possesses. I think it’s a very right step in ensuring that the owner actually votes and that the votes will count at the end of the day, but, I think if we can perfect the system and if INEC can bring the Card Reader and it is operated, creditably, well, we don’t have anything to fear. Anything that will assist and promote transparency, anything that will assist us to have free and fair election in this country should be encouraged.
I don’t think there’s anything inconsistent with the Electoral Act 2010 as amended in the use of PVC, what bothers me is why it took us this length of time knowing that as far back as 2011, when this thing was proposed, we all knew we were having elections in 2015 and that they were going to use these cards, so, for these cards to now begin to come.