The 2023 general elections may have come and gone, but some of the fallouts or ripple effects are not yet over. The battles have simply shifted to the courts, as there are multiple election petition cases going on across the nation. This is not unexpected, as the trend of “election by court order” has gained currency since the advent of the new democratic dispensation in 1999, disputes over election outcomes in various courts for this year’s election is alarming.
A total of 1,280 elective offices were contested for during the elections, these are the office of the president,109 for the Senate, 360 for the Federal House of Representatives,782 seats for the House of Assembly in 28 states and 28 governorship positions. From the total figure, about 1,209 cases are before various election petition courts waiting for judicial resolutions. This startling development was made known by the President of the Court of Appeal (PCA), Justice Monica Dongban-Mensem, in her address to commence 2023/2024 new legal year.
According to her, the high turnover of petitions represents 94.453% of positions contested for. Going further, she disclosed that 98 panels was constituted to dispose of all the petitions nationwide. The Presidential Election Petition Court handled 5 cases,147 for the Senates and 417 for the House of Representatives respectively. State Houses of Assembly has 557 petitions and 88 gubernatorial cases. Out of 28 states that had governorship elections, petitions were filed in 24. From the 1,280 offices, only 71 positions are without legal contest, this represents a mere 5.547%.
In all these, pre-election cases are not included. A legal expert in his statistical analysis, compared the 2023 general elections with the other previous ones, citing the 2015 Presidential Election as the only one which did not go to court. The year had 663 petitions, representing 44.32%. The 2019 elections saw 766 petitions (51.2%), while 2011 elections produced a very close figure of 769 cases (51.4%). He likened 2023 elections to 2007 contest. In November 2022, INEC chairman Prof Mahmood Yakubu disclosed that they were faced with over 600 pr-election cases across the country. That number has certainly swollen with the 1,209 cases, as INEC is usually had a party in election disputes.
The implication of the above developments is that winners in elections are not truly decided by the electorates, rather such tasks are shifted to the courts. This has in turn created the culture of “election by court validation” Again, the courts assuming the position of the final arbiter in election disputes, brings them under immense pressure, due to the timeline attached to their determination. Normal civil and criminal matters suffer delays or put on hold during election dispute interregnum, due to the fact that the judges handling such cases are on election petition assignment. Also, the involvement of the judiciary in deciding election matters, has created a culture of impunity among some unscrupulous politicians, who believes that they can use the judicial process to achieve their political aim. For instance, the 2023 general elections saw the emergency of a new lexicon in Nigeria’s electoral process, “Go to court” became the singsong.
When election matter is going on, the situation is that the real act of governance is put on hold, as contestants channels all energy towards the outcome of the case. Where there is power of incumbency, usually state resources are fully mobilized to execute the case. The full-scale involvement of the judiciary in the electoral process, does not augur well for Nigeria’s democratic development. It erodes the power of the people to have the final decision on who governs them.
An array of cases abounds, of how unpopular candidates, truly not elected by the electorates later emerged the winner through the court. Experts has continued to make calls for more and continuous amendments in the Constitution and Electoral Act to stem the tide of what some has termed “election by the judiciary” For instance the Electoral Act 2022, was meant to cure some mischief and remove the lacunas in the previous laws, but the conduct of the elections in 2023 has brought many imperfections to the fore.