Recent developments in the judiciary in Nigeria, especially at the Court of Appeal, have raised dust. There are claims that the judges in the temple of justice are not consistent in their judgements on electoral matters, thereby confusing and disenchanting the public.
The Court of Appeal is next in the hierarchy of courts in Nigeria after the Supreme Court, and it has the jurisdiction to hear appeals from the decisions of the National and State Houses of Assembly Election Petitions Tribunals, the Governorship Election Tribunals, and the Federal High Court.
Therefore, the Court of Appeal plays a crucial role in resolving electoral disputes and ensuring the credibility of the electoral process.
However, many Nigerians are bothered that the judges of the Court of Appeal are dispensing ‘justice’ in a manner that suggests there are different versions of the Electoral Act, resulting in incongruous judgements by giving conflicting interpretations to the same Electoral Act in cases that appear similar and under the same circumstance.
For instance, in 2020, the Court of Appeal gave contradictory judgements on the validity of the nomination of candidates by political parties in the 2019 general elections. In some cases, the court held that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had the power to reject the nomination of candidates who did not comply with the provisions of the Electoral Act and the guidelines issued by INEC.
However, in other cases, the court held that INEC had no such power and that the nomination of candidates was an internal affair of the political parties. These conflicting judgments created confusion and uncertainty among the stakeholders and the public.
Recently, there has been political tension across the country over the reversal or affirmation of judgements made by election tribunals in some states following the 2023 general elections.
Those judgements have stirred heated conversations and commentaries among legal experts and observers as well as the general public, some of whom raised questions concerning the integrity of judges at the Appeal Court.
The Kano State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal nullified the election of Governor Abba Kabir Yusuf of the New Nigeria Peoples Party (NNPP) on September 20 and declared Nasiru Yusuf Gawuna of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as the valid winner of the election held on March 18.
The tribunal deducted 165,663 votes from Yusuf’s tally, which were deemed invalid because they were not signed or stamped by the INEC.
Yusuf appealed the tribunal’s judgement at the Court of Appeal in Abuja, seeking to reverse the decision and restore his mandate.
The Court of Appeal upheld the tribunal’s judgement and affirmed that Yusuf was not a valid candidate of the NNPP, as he was not a member of the party at the time of the election.
However, the Certified True Copy (CTC) of the Court of Appeal’s judgement contained some discrepancies, which caused confusion and controversy.
The Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal later clarified that the errors were due to “clerical mistakes” and did not affect the substance of the court’s decision. He also stated that the errors could be corrected upon formal application by the concerned parties.
The controversy sparked protests in Kano. There were also allegations from some NNPP supporters that the judgement was doctored.
On November 27, the police averted a massive protest in the state by a group of people who planned to shut down the major markets and take over the streets.
Thousands of youths went on demonstration, while rejecting the Court of Appeal judgement. They chanted slogans such as “Justice for Kano”, “Justice for Abba” and “We want Abba back”.
On September 22, the Plateau State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal upheld the election of Governor Caleb Mutfwang of the PDP and dismissed the petition of Nentawe Goshwe of the APC, who challenged the election results on the grounds of invalid nomination and sponsorship, lack of PDP structure, and electoral non-compliance.
Goshwe appealed the tribunal’s judgement at the Court of Appeal in Abuja, asking the court to declare him as the validly elected governor in the March 18 governorship election.
The Court of Appeal, in its judgement on November 19, 2023, sacked Mutfwang and ordered INEC to recognise Goshwe as the validly elected governor.
The court cited Section 177 of the Constitution, noting that Mutfwang was not a validly sponsored candidate by the PDP during the election, as the party violated the court order that a valid congress be conducted in the 17 local government areas of the state. The party had conducted Congress in only five local government areas of the state.
The court also held that the issue of qualification is both a pre-election and a post-election matter, contrary to the ruling of the tribunal which held that Goshwe lacked the locus to contest the validity of Mutfwang’s nomination.
The judgement sparked controversy among the supporters of Mutfwang and the PDP, who accused the court of bias and injustice.
They staged peaceful protests in Jos, the Plateau State capital, calling for the review of the verdict and expressing confidence in the final verdict to be delivered by the Supreme Court.
The judgement was also criticised by some civil society groups and legal experts, who termed it a ‘clear case of the rape of democracy’ and urged the judiciary to affirm Mutfwang’s victory and reject any intervention in pre-election matters.
Also, the Appeal Court sacked four PDP federal lawmakers in the National Assembly from Plateau State. It also sacked 11 PDP lawmakers from the Plateau State House of Assembly, leaving only one PDP member in the state legislature.
The court premised its decision on the grounds that the PDP lacked a valid party structure in the state and violated the constitution in its nomination process.
The sacked PDP lawmakers protested the judgement and appealed to the Supreme Court to review the verdicts and restore their mandates. They have also accused the court of bias and injustice, and alleged that some APC chieftains influenced the court’s decisions.
The Court of Appeal in Abuja declared the Zamfara State Governorship Election as inconclusive on November 16. It ordered INEC to conduct a fresh election in three LGAs of the state. The LGAs affected by the court’s order are Maradun, Birnin-Magaji and Bukkuyum.
The court had held that it was wrong for INEC to rely on information it obtained from its IReV portal to collate the final results of the governorship election. It therefore nullified the return of Governor Dauda Lawal of the PDP as the winner of the gubernatorial contest.
The judgement followed an appeal that was lodged before the court by the immediate past governor of the state, Bello Matawalle, who was the candidate of the APC in the state.
Supporters of Governor Lawal and PDP accused the court of bias and injustice. They urged the judiciary to affirm Lawal’s victory and reject any intervention in pre-election matters.
On October 5, the Nasarawa State Governorship Election Petitions Tribunal sacked Governor Abdullahi Sule of the APC and declared Dr David Ombugadu of the PDP as the validly elected governor in the governorship election.
The tribunal held that Sule was not a validly nominated candidate of the APC, as he did not participate in the party’s primary election, which was conducted by the National Working Committee (NWC) of the party.
The tribunal also held that Ombugadu scored the majority of the lawful votes cast in the election, as the results declared by the INEC were marred by irregularities, over-voting, and non-compliance with the Electoral Act.
Sule appealed the tribunal’s judgement at the Court of Appeal in Abuja. The Court delivered its judgement on November 23, setting aside the tribunal’s judgement and affirming INEC declaration of Sule as winner of the governorship election.
The court also held that the tribunal erred in law in using witness statements on oath not front-loaded as required by law to arrive at the unjust conclusion of nullifying the election of the governor, adding that the issue of nomination and sponsorship of a candidate was a pre-election matter, which could not be entertained by the tribunal in a post-election petition.
The judgement, like other similar ones, generated controversy as supporters of Ombugadu and PDP accused the court of bias and injustice.