Following the final ruling of the Supreme Court on the outcome of the 2023 presidential election, Prince Adewole Adebayo, one of the contenders in the race on the platform of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), has denounced the attitude of politicians toward elections.
He discussed a wide range of topics in this interview with BANKPAWA, including the fact that politicians only go to court to get power and not justice, the need for urgent electoral reform to ensure that election winners are not sworn into office until the cases against them are concluded in courts, the appointment of judges into the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court, and the place of technicality in legal proceedings.
It was estimated that the presidential election petitions would take around six months to resolve, taking 120 days in the Court of Appeal and 60 days at the Supreme Court. The verdict came eight months after the elections; in light of this, how do you think the system should be improved?
Of course, it could be better, and we should give thanks to God because it was a huge improvement over the previous situation. After three years of litigation, the candidate is already thinking ahead to the next election. But now we’re saying we should shorten it, and the plan is already in motion to do so. The next step is to wrap things up before the jury is sworn in, so that biases are eliminated. After the election adjudication is complete and the new president is sworn in, the next step is to ensure that no elections will ever need to be litigated in court. In certain nations, out of every thousand elections, only one or two are ever litigated. That needs to be our focus right now.
How do we find this Eldorado, anyway?
There are three things we must do, but it is up to the politicians to do them. Making legal reform a priority is one of them. The irony is that all those working to change the legislation are themselves politicians. It’s important to remember that every lawmaker in the National Assembly has a personal stake in the outcome of any proposed changes to the legislation. When it comes to making laws, the president is just as important as the National Assembly, since nothing can become law in Nigeria without the president’s signature. Since they are both politicians, it will need moral argument to convince them to make this change.
The court took less time than the litigants themselves in the 2023 election petition process. The Supreme Court spent less than a week to issue its ruling and they did similar thing when Awolowo and Shagari appeared before them. There is no issue on the court side. The only time this becomes an issue is when you ask the court to move quicker than the law allows, to grant you relief that it does not have the authority to grant, or to refuse to hear a matter that it is required to hear. The court is the least problematic branch of government to reform after the law has been altered and the behavior of politicians has been modified. The Supreme Court didn’t make an unjust decision against me since I didn’t file the petition for the election. And if I file a strong one, I’ll get a strong ruling. In this context, I feel it’s vital to emphasize that a petition for election is not a necessary prerequisite for running for political office. The tension persists since the court has not granted the political parties’ demands. The politicians have never been happy with the court’s decision in an election case before, and they never will be. Politicians aren’t interested in doing what’s right. They seek decisions that will give them authority. The legal system, then, is viewed as a means to an end by them. However, the judicial system isn’t intended to give you control. You may expect to be treated fairly by the court system. If justice doesn’t bring you power, then it’s not justice, even if you obtain it sometimes.
Throughout our campaign, I witnessed what I believe to be a widespread misunderstanding of the rule of court and the rule of law. None of the Supreme Court’s rulings are a surprise to me. The events of election day are off-limits to the court forever. Not intended for use in that way. What is before the court is the petition that the person takes before the court and if the petition doesn’t reflect what transpired on election day, the court won’t talk about it since the court isn’t called to supervise the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). A judge from Surulere, where the election irregularities took place, is not expected to see reason with you if the petition before the court fails to accurately capture INEC’s errors and instead ventures outside to discuss other matters that are in conflict with the law. I’m sorry, but he just isn’t paying attention. He’s reading what’s in front of him. Judges do not have unlimited authority. They are like you and I on an everyday day. The issue before it and the applicable law constrain the jurisdiction that will decide it.
There are others who believe the Supreme Court ignored the meat of the case in favor of the legal procedure. The issuing of a certificate from Chicago State University, for instance, was completely disregarded. Do you have any thoughts?
There are three factors to keep in mind throughout an election. One, all aspects of law seem extremely technical to those who are not trained in the field. Second, because election is a technological process, it is often considered sui-generis and treated differently from other procedural, technical, and substantive matters. There are restrictions on filing time, the types of arguments that can be made, and who can file the petition. The entire field of electoral law is very specialized.
Finally, the party’s claim before the court was not a substantive one, but rather a technical one, as a substantive claim would be something like, “I came to court and said I got the most votes, and here’s the proof.” Technicality would apply if I went to court and claimed that someone else had more votes than me, but that person was not qualified. Even if I were to argue that he lacks the necessary credentials, you still wouldn’t be stating that the people’s vote was for him. You’re basically stating that he may win, but his vote shouldn’t count since his deputy was supposed to file a paper within 30 days and he didn’t. That’s just a matter of detail, too.
The Supreme Court of Bayelsa did not rule that Lyon did not win the election. His assistant reportedly experienced a technical difficulty. The problem lies there. You can’t come to court asking for technical help and then whine when you get a technical response. All the topics covered in this year’s petition were very technical in nature, making it the most technical petition to date. There are three phases to the Chicago State University debate. It wouldn’t have mattered if the court had admitted the evidence nonetheless, but the Supreme Court, being the highest court in the land, didn’t perform “aguendo,” the practice of admitting evidence you don’t agree with in the event that a higher court rules otherwise. If they had took it to the Court of Appeal, it would have stated the case isn’t acceptable, but let me simply presume that it is admissible in case it gets to the court above. The issue was brought before the Supreme Court as though it were brand new, however the Court has a stringent regulation in that witnesses are not allowed. Again, for the court to look at what the lower court hadn’t looked at before, the court at the lower level must assume the position of the court at the lower level; however, if the court at the lower level were to assume the function of the court at the lower level, the time limited for the Court of Appeal to sit on it would have expired; furthermore, the limitation of time is not stated in the electoral act; rather, it is located within the constitution, which is superior to the Supreme Court because it is from the constitution Therefore, the Supreme Court cannot protect you from anything that violates the Constitution.
The Supreme Court made various comments in that ruling that I hope politicians would follow. What are your thoughts on the issue of 25% of the FCT, for example?
When the Supreme Court rendered a decision in the matter of Atiku or Obi versus Tinubu, it didn’t have to hunt for a new rule. They simply brought up the INEC ruling. It’s abundantly evident that it’s unnecessary. Some people might have forgotten about the matter, however distantly related it was, in four years. It’s possible that some people will insist that this is just how the legal system works. Don’t think you’ve heard the last of it or that it won’t come up again in court.
Although the Supreme Court has previously decided on comparable grounds in cases like Adeleke vs. Oyetola and Oyebanji vs. Oni, the INEC IREV and its Bimodal Voter Accreditation system came up in the petitions of the petitioners. Do you think the Supreme Court has made itself heard loud and clear?
That reminds me of something I mentioned before. Politicians seek the courts not for justice but for political gain. Having honest and upstanding politicians is the key to a fair election. The next step is to station agents in every single voting place. After the polls have closed and you’ve received your results, you’ll need to compile them yourself. Your very own private IREV is entirely possible. We operated out of the SDP’s very own situation room, where we compiled data from all of our field agents. We realized they became ‘Awol’ when we started encountering issues and they stopped sending us updates. From our observations, very few conflicts came from the polling units. You’ll need 86,000 poll agents to show up and say, “I was there, this is the result given to me, but it’s completely different from what was announced on TV,” if you’re going to complain about the number of voting locations that was reported on television. Many consider election litigation to be an extension of the actual campaign.
I was wondering what you thought about the claims made by retired Justice Musa Muhammed Datijo, such as the Chief Registrar of the Supreme Court being paid more than the Chief Justice of Nigeria.
What he said is merely surprising to the public. Nobody who has ever talked to him would think that. He talks just like he did at his graduation address. For it, he has gained notoriety. He expresses himself honestly. He has faith in the decisions of the Supreme Court. Outside of the courtroom, on the administrative side, is where his worries lie. In order to retrieve the Mercedes Benz from then-President Babangida, the late Gani Fawehinmi brought the whole Supreme Court to court. It’s a problem in the relationships between senior lawyers like us and judges, when lawyers who know the judges aren’t well compensated give some form of support whenever there’s a special occasion, like a birthday or an event. This is the same issue that plagued Walter Onoghen’s critics before he gained government leadership. If the courthouse roof is leaking, for instance, it is the Chief Registrar, as Head of the Tenders Board, who must award the contract, while the Chief Justice of the court, as chairman of the body, is the approving authority. As with any human resources issue, this can cause friction between the Chief Justice and his or her colleagues. If you travel to the states, you will notice that the divisional administrative judges have nothing good to say about the state’s chief judge.
What do you think about the fact that the judiciary appears to have zero use for numbers?
Yes, that’s why number two lasts so long. Like having a governor and a vice governor. In my opinion, Nigerians need to be a little more lenient in their approach to political leadership. Concentrations of privilege and power should be avoided at all costs. In the instance of the Supreme Court regarding what Justice Datijo is talking about, even the Chief Justice himself has some measure of injustice to him with respect to remuneration. I’m sure his colleagues understood what he was saying, but unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to help the general public; the remedy lies inside their own ranks, with a pay review and discussion with the commission in question.
The Constitution specifies that there must always be at least 21 justices (including the CJN) on the Supreme Court. However, the population has steadily diminished due to factors like retirement and mortality. How do you think judges and justices should be selected and appointed?
Appointments of Supreme Court and Court of Appeal Justices are controversial. The president has the authority to appoint, and the judiciary handles matters related to the qualifications of the candidate. According to my interpretation of the Constitution, the President has greater authority than anybody else since only he can make appointments. The president is open to suggestions from the NJC. The president will not appoint somebody he is unhappy with. That’s the final word. However, if the president picks someone and the judiciary is unhappy with the choice, the new appointee will face difficulties.
Is the NJC’s approval necessary for a presidential appointment?
It is not an appointment under the Constitution if someone recommends you for something. According to my understanding of the presidential constitution, you are under no legal obligation to follow my advise. Don’t worry about it. The fact that it never has previously is merely coincidental.
To lessen the likelihood of such inbreeding occurring on the Supreme Court, how can we improve the transparency of the appointment process?
It makes sense to appoint judges from both the bench and the bar to the highest court, as whatever the bench writes, the bar produces. However, I believe that in Nigeria, we are attempting to implement two fundamental changes. I would recommend beginning with the Court of Appeals before going straight to the Supreme Court. The judges are also keeping an eye on the attorneys because they are familiar with their habits. The same way the bar is keeping an eye on the court, the court is doing the same thing. Let’s zero in on the court of appeal as the starting point for our calibration.