When the election tribunals were inaugurated after the general elections, they were expected to do justice and dwell less on technicalities. The Chief Justice of Nigeria (CJN), Justice Mahmud Mohammed, while inaugurating the 242 judges in the over 70 election tribunals, urged them to look at cases on their merit.
He told them: “As you start your assignment, I must re-iterate that while you are on the tribunals, you will be looked upon as the embodiment of this ideal of justice. To that end, you must be the dispensers of justice, regardless of fear or favour, position or standing.
“Since you all do not have the luxury of time in the discharge of your duties, I urge you all to be pedantic in your deliberations but do not allow ‘red- herring’ technicalities to distract you from the path of justice. You must listen attentively, and enquire appropriately, taking care not to descend into the arena,” the CJN said.
However, judges at the tribunals seem to be doing otherwise. Some of their decisions, it appears, tend to emphasize technicalities.
On July 31, the Court of Appeal in Abuja reversed an earlier decision by the Kogi State Legislative Election Tribunal. The Justice Akpan Ikpeme-led tribunal had, in a ruling on June 18 in the petition by Senator Smart Adeyemi against Senator Dino Melaye (challenging the outcome of the election in the Kogi West Senatorial District), dismissed the petition on technical ground.
The tribunal said petition was incompetent and was abandoned because the petitioner was out of time in its response to the reply by one of the respondents.
But, in its judgment on July 31, the Court of Appeal faulted the tribunal’s decision and ordered it to re-hear the petition promptly in line with the provision of the Constitution which stipulates 180 days from the date of filing.
Justice Mohammed Adume , who read the unanimous judgment, noted that “findings of the tribunal that the service was effected within 26 minutes was not supported with affidavit by the tribunal’s bailiff. The tribunal was wrong in its hasty conclusion and in striking out the petition on technicality.
“A tribunal has the duty to verify and evaluate evidence before it in order to arrive at a just conclusion. The tribunal was wrong in stopping the train while on its way to justice,” Justice Adume said.
The Court of Appeal in Akure reversed two decisions of the election tribunal dismissing the petitions by Festus Aregbesola (Akure South) and Gbenga Edema (Ilaje 11) in Ondo State. The tribunal had dismissed both petitions on technical grounds.
There was also the decision in the petition by former Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives, Emeka Ihedioha against Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State, where the tribunal dismissed the petition on the ground that the petitioner did not pay for the answers to the prehearing questionnaire.
Also, the tribunal, by some of these decisions, seem to be in haste to do away with the petitions, and appear not to be interested in the CJN’s admonition and the various decisions of the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court on the need to de-emphasise technicalities.
The Supreme Court in the case of Amaechi v. I.N.E.C. (No.3) (2007) 18 NWLR (Pt.1065) says: ‘’The sum total of the recent decisions of this court is that the court must move away from the era when adjudicatory power of the court was hindered by a constraining adherence to technicalities. .’’
The Court of Appeal, in the case of Balonwu v. Obi (2007) 5 NWLR (Part. 1028) 488 at 542, says: “The court is more interested in doing substantial justice because reliance on technicalities lead to injustice…”
The Court of Appeal added, in the case of Abdurauf v. State (2008) All FWLR (Part.410) 709 at 735 that “the policy of sticking to technicalities as opposed to substantial justice has ceased and the court has shifted from undue reliance on technicalities to doing substantial justice between the parties before it.”
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) is also accused of not helping the course of justice but frustrating petitioners’ cases.
This allegation is further supported in most of the tribunals like that of Rivers, Akwa-Ibom, and Gombe states where INEC has made it difficult for petitioners to inspect election materials and obtain certified true copies of them.
In the case of Gombe governorship election tribunal, it took a long battle for the petitioners to overcome the intrigues and sometimes outright subterfuge of INEC officials in the Gombe office.
It took the intervention of the INEC headquarters for some of its officials subpoenaed to agree to testify. The petitioners had to rely on such intervention to get the Head of Operations for the April 11, 2015 governorship election to testify on subpoena.
With the INEC official as witness, the petitioners were able to go through the electoral forms to demonstrate their claim about how votes were deducted from the petitioners and how in some cases votes were added to the declared winner.
With another official of INEC from its Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) department, the petitioners were also able to demonstrate their claim that voters’ accreditation details recorded in the various electoral forms defer from the details in the card reader server at the INEC Headquarters.
It is the petitioners’ contention that since no incident forms were used for the governorship elections across the country, such discrepancies are significant in determining the issue of whether the election was conducted in substantial compliance with the Electoral Act.
The petitioners are however uncomfortable that the tribunal refused to allow the report of the inspection of other electoral materials like the voters’registers and ballot papers to be admitted in evidence.
They are equally sad that the tribunal in Gombe has denied petitioners in the other subsisting petitions the opportunity to bring in as evidence, report of inspection of electoral materials and even refused an application for the recounting of ballot papers.
The petitioners queried the decision by the tribunal to disallow an INEC official from giving evidence on the ground that the subpoena was not personally served on the officer to whom it was addressed.
They also complained that a substantial part of the 14 days allocated to the petitioners to present their case has been lost on account of all sorts of objections and applications raised and filed by the defence counsel.
Petitioners at the Gombe governorship tribunal are particularly umcomfortable with the tribunal’s seeming predilection for technicalities.