Few election tribunal judgments in recent times have engaged the Nigerian public as much as that of the Taraba State Governorship Election Tribunal, which not only sacked Governor Ishaku of PDP but also ordered that the APC candidate Jummai Alhassan be declared the winner.
According to newspaper reports, the Tribunal which sat at the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal, in a unanimous judgment by a three-man panel of judges delivered by Justice Danladi Abubakar on November 7 2015 ruled that Ishaku was not validly nominated as a candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party and as such was not in the eyes of the law a candidate in the April 11 Governorship election in the state.
My aim in this piece is not to interrogate the legal basis of the ruling – as this is a matter for smart lawyers versed in election petitions – but to call attention to salient issues raised by the judgment.
Let me start by saying that the Taraba Governorship election, which was held on April 11 2015, was one of the most watched in the country. One of the reasons for this was that the race pitched a professionally accomplished woman, Jummai Alhassan, whose photo radiated grace and friendliness against a man – a man with rough hewn features for that matter. The latter amplified the perception of the race in some quarters as that between a female underdog who wants to break the societal glass ceiling for women in politics and another representative of the men folk who wants to perpetuate the status quo and its privileges in our largely patriarchal society. When INEC declared Darius Dickson Ishaku of the PDP the winner of the election despite the expected bandwagon effect of Buhari’s victory in the March 2015 presidential elections, some of us concluded that the outcome was a triumph of tradition and the religious politics in Taraba State over the APC’s change mantra.
Nearly six months after the APC came to power as the ruling party, the judgment of the Taraba State Governorship Election Tribunal in conjunction with a few other developments in the country raise a number of vital issues:
One, though the APC has had a few of its State and National Assembly seats nullified by election petition tribunals, an overwhelming majority of the election petition casualties seem to be the PDP – from Rivers States to Akwa Ibom and Taraba States. Earlier the Elections Petitions Tribunal sitting in Jalingo had nullified the election of the Speaker of the Taraba State House of Assembly, Abel Diah, of the PDP after concluding that voting in eight of nine voting booths in Mbamga constituency were marred by enormous irregularities. The judgment put Emmanuel Bongo of the APC in the lead with 1,440 votes.
The subtext of the preponderant nullification of the election of PDP candidates is that the APC candidates occupied the moral high grounds in the last election or that they were averse to rigging and manipulation of the electoral process or that they were recruited from another planet. This is difficult for me to accept. I have always believed that while both parties have a few people of integrity, there is no substantive difference between the two parties in their approaches to elections and perception of public offices. While it is the right of any candidate who feels that he or she was cheated out of victory to seek redress in the election tribunals, my fear is that the preponderant nullification of the election of the candidates of the PDP may create an image crisis for the Nigerian judiciary, which will then undermine the Buhari regime’s war against corruption because a key prerequisite for the success of that war is a perception that judgments obtained in our courts and tribunals are truly blind and are not influenced by any extraneous considerations.
Two, in my column last week, I raised the question of what I called the ‘tyranny of Buhari’s body language’. I was concerned about the tendency of many otherwise sleepy public entities to suddenly wake up from their deep slumber and mete out punitive punishment on whoever they can lay their hands on – to convince the president they are on the same page with his no-nonsense image. Buhari’s body language – a cue that undesirable actions will have consequences – is largely beneficial and in fact the key social capital of the current government. However just as any policy has unintended consequence, a body language, being a mere cue, could be misconstrued or abused. While I am not suggesting that the judgment of the Taraba State Governorship Election Tribunal necessarily falls into the instances I enumerated last week as the ‘tyranny of Buhari’s body language’ it seems to me there is so much fear of Buhari among public officials that you cannot rule out either miscarriage of justice or punishments meted that are disproportionate to the alleged offence. Largely because of this I feel there is a need for the presidency to deliberately calm many panicky public officials and let them know that they should do their work as their conscience permits and not out of the fear of Buhari. Fear is not a sustainable tool of administration.
Three, the numerous victories of APC candidates over their PDP counterparts remind one of the defunct Action Congress of Nigeria (A.C.N.), the most senior partner in the amalgamation of some legacy parties that formed the APC. The A.C.N. appeared to be a specialist in using court processes to secure victories for its candidates. In the 2007 elections for instance – the Action Congress of Nigeria won only Lagos State but used court processes to win three other states – Ekiti, Edo State and Osun states. Remarkably these victories were won under a PDP federal government. Depending on where you stood in the political divide, the A.C.N leadership was then seen as either savvy in using court processes or had the judiciary in its pocket. With the leadership of the defunct A.C.N still part of the leadership of the APC, it will be unfortunate if old insinuations about the A.C.N’s use of the courts are resurrected to de-legitimate the Buhari government.
Four, Taraba state deserves peace. Since former Governor of the State Danbaba Suntai escaped death in a plane crash on 25 October 2012 and subsequently became brain damaged, the state has hardly known peace because a cabal around him prevented an orderly transfer of power to his Deputy and later Acting Governor. Many saw the 2015 elections as a chance for a new beginning for the State. Now we read from the Guardian of November 9 2015 that over 30 people have been killed in Wukari Local Council of State in upheavals that trailed the Taraba State Governorship Election Tribunal ruling. With Boko Haram in the northeast and agitations for Biafra in the southeast, the government certainly does not need another flashpoint in the country.
Five, the upturning of so many election victories indirectly plays into the hands of the PDP as it raises questions about the conduct of the last elections, whose relatively peaceful nature, have led some people to hyperbolically call it the ‘freest and fairest’ in the country, with Professor Jega and the card readers often specially decorated. It also raises the question of why the APC seems to be contesting the outcome of nearly all the elections where it was not declared the winner. With Governor Fayemi’s concession of defeat to Fayose in Ekiti in 2014 and Jonathan’s concession to Buhari in the March 2015 presidential election, many hailed an emerging new culture of losers conceding defeat. The APC must not give the impression it wants to negate that emerging culture.