All contentions attending the 2019 presidential election was officially brought to an end on Wednesday following the dismissal by the Supreme Court of the appeal by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, further stretching the strain of losses by the opposition parties and their candidates at the apex court.
While the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) is rolling out the drums to celebrate the Buhari victory, the PDP and Mr Abubakar can take credit for their faith in democracy and the rule of law by putting the entire process through the judicial crucible. Not a few commentators have commended the tenacity of the opposition who through its democratic conduct had enriched the nation’s electoral jurisprudence.
The Tanko Muhammad-led court held that the appeal was lacking in merit after reading all the documents brought before it. The court has said it will make its reasons for reaching its decision known to Nigerians at a later date.
The nation’s electoral process is still far from perfect, although we can appreciate the fact that there has been a remarkable improvement since 1999. Several reforms of the various aspects of the procedure had put an appreciable degree of credibility on the process. There is no doubt that the hazardous elements that characterise Nigeria’s general elections are still here, howbeit in curtailed measures.
Beginning from the 1979 presidential election, the political rivalry between the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN) and the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) are not different from today’s exchanges between the PDP and APC.
The 1979 Presidential Election
Wednesday’s Supreme Court’s decision files behind landmark decisions taken in respect of presidential elections since the Second Republic in 1979. The 1979 presidential election generated so much tension and unprecedented legal fireworks, so fierce and hot that they moulded and transformed the legal frameworks upon which election petitions are now prosecuted. It has been said that the Supreme Court’s decision on the 1979 election was so controversial that the judgment itself would not want it cited as a judicial precedent.
During the election, which was contested by several parties, Obafemi Awolowo’s UPN polled a total of 4,916,615 votes comprising 29.18 per cent of the votes cast; while Shehu Shagari of the NPN received 5,668,857 votes, representing 33.77percent of the votes.
Mr Shagari was declared winner, but Mr Awolowo contested the results on the grounds that the NPN candidate did not garner sufficient votes to be declared president. This is because under the 1979 Constitution, to be elected president on the first ballot, a candidate must score not only the highest number of votes nationwide, but must also score at least 25 per cent of the votes in two-thirds of the states. Nigeria had 19 states at the time and two-thirds of 19 would mathematically be 12.66. It was Awolowo’s argument that logically it should be rounded off to be 13 states, as the Electoral Act and the Electoral Decree of 1978 did not envisage the fractionalization of a state, and Mr Shagari had scored a minimum of 25 per cent in only 12 states, putting the Justice Fatai Williams led Supreme Court in a difficult position. It was Mr Awolowo’s prayer that the court should declare that Mr Shagari was not duly elected and as such declare the election as void.
The court rejected Mr Awolowo’s argument, concluding that Mr Shagari won the election based on the interpretation of the relevant section of the constitution to mean winning 25 per cent of 12 states and winning 25 per cent of the votes in the 13th state.
The 1983 debacle
The ruling party then ensured it did not allow for the controversy of the previous election when during the1983 elections it ensured that its candidate, President Shagari, won 25 per cent of the votes in 16 of the 19 states after winning the majority of the votes nationwide. The opposition parties were not silent about the massive rigging and violence that greeted that election.
The elections of 1983 were so controversial, with massive irregularities such that resulted in violence in some states, particularly in Ondo and Oyo States. Even though it was generally believed that the elections were marred by rigging, the verdicts from the courts did not show same, resulting in disenchantments among voters.
The Greater Nigerian Peoples Party(GNPP) and its presidential candidate, Waziri Ibrahim, however, went to court to challenge Mr Shagari’s victory, prosecuting the case from the High Court up to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the judgments of the High Court and the Appeal Court respectively in dismissing the suit seeking to nullify Mr Shagari’s re-election.
In the ensuing hoopla, the military struck on December 31, 1983, and seized power, bringing an end to the Second Republic. Mr Buahri, who emerged as the Head of State at the advent of the coup, began another military cycle which confined the nation to a dark period until 1999 when democracy was restored.
In 1999, the presidential election result was also contested in court by the Alliance for Democracy-All Peoples Party’s joint candidate, Olu Falae. His argument that Olusegun Obasanjo was not qualified to contest the election was thrown out by the Justice Dahiru Musdapher’s Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court was spared the hassles of adjudicating on the matter when Mr Falae backed off, losing the will to proceed to the Supreme Court.
Nevertheless, in 2003, when Muhammadu Buhari lost the presidential election to President Obasanjo, he straight away sought the intervention of the court to nullify the reelection of Mr Obasanjo. He failed in the Court of Appeal and went ahead to the Supreme Court. His complaints were that of massive irregularities and election rigging. But the Supreme Court resolved that the irregularities during the 2003 elections did not materially affect the outcome of the presidential elections and that Mr Obasanjo is the duly elected President of Nigeria.
Not willing to be dissuaded from his ambition, Mr Buhari also contested the 2007 elections against Umar Yar’Adua. Once the Independent National Electoral Commission declared the PDP candidate the winner, Mr Buhari proceeded to the courts to upturn the pronouncement. He lost at the Appeal Court and went ahead to the Supreme Court. His claims also bordered on election manipulations by the ruling PDP. The Court of Appeal had first ruled that the combined challenge of Mr Buhari of the ANPP and Atiku Abubakar of Action Congress failed to prove that the irregularities that marred the exercise were so pervasive to discard the results and order the polls a nullity. The Supreme Court, although with dissentions, agreed with the Appeal Court, and Mr Yar’Adua, who openly admitted that the election that brought him to power was fraught with irregularities, was confirmed duly elected president.
Undeterred by his failure in previous elections, Mr Buhari again in 2011 attempted to return to power through the ballot. He lost the election but took his grouse from the Appeal Court to the Supreme Court, alleging irregularities in the presidential election. In a unanimous decision in favour of Mr Jonathan and the Peoples Democratic Party, the court declared that even where irregularities occurred, the Congress for Progressive Change, and its flag bearer, Mr Buhari, failed to prove them.
“The judgment of the lower court is affirmed and consequently the third respondent (Goodluck Jonathan) …won the election conducted on 16 April 2011,” Justice Olufunmilayo Adekeye, the lead judge held.
When President Jonathan lost re-election to Mr Buhari in 2015, he did not challenge the results in court.
Form the foregoing, history is solidly in favour of any incumbent president as it concerns electoral disputes and rulings of the Supreme Court of Nigeria. Wednesday’s judgment therefore did not come as a surprise to many. Besides the fact that some had expressed concern over the selection of justices for the apex court prior to the hearing of the appeal, there is nothing at the moment to signify that the court would have the gut to unseat a sitting president. Even in previous elections with less credulity and wanton violence, the irregularities were held as insufficient to invalidate the outcome of the process.
It is the verdict of the Supreme Court. Supreme to the extent that it is an end to appeals. The losers have accepted their fate and Nigerians can rest on the fact that the process of law has been fully applied. This is the true spirit of democracy and the rule of law. The opposition would need to further develop strategies of recording with precision, irregularities noticed during elections in order to prove their case before the courts beyond reasonable doubts. This is the lesson that must be learnt from the outcomes of the judicial exercises emanating from the election petitions so far.
With mixed reactions pouring in, there are reasons to look beyond the judgment papers. The system of justice, the process of elections and the nature of politics must be fully re-examined.
“…unless something drastic is done to electoral jurisprudence in this country, there would be a problem because it is now becoming obvious that petitioners would always find it difficult to prosecute their cases,” Levy Uzoukwu, Atiku Abubakar’s lawyer said after Wednesday’s judgement.