Access To Vital Materials By Election Petitioners
June 21st, 2007
One common complaint that has dogged the sittings of the various Election Petition Tribunals and, by implication, threatens the outcome of the whole exercises, is the difficulties being encountered by petitioners in assembling the much-needed materials as required under the so-called ‘frontloading formula’ being adopted as stipulated for under the Electoral Act 2006. On paper, the new policy of ‘frontloading,’ requiring petitioners and respondents to submit, in one package, all the materials, witnesses and evidence that they would need in the course of the trial, is a procedural reaction to the experiences of the past in which many petitioners and their attorneys wasted so much valuable time in assembling and presenting their evidences before the tribunals, a development which, in turn, led to quite unacceptable delays in the determination of petitions. There is no doubt that the old procedure led to some miscarriage of justice as it is a well-known fact that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
It is therefore impossible to seek to now legitimately condemn the present arrangement which was in fact expected to cure the problems of the past. However, the hardship that is confronting those now faced with the application of the new rules has made it necessary that we pause to take a second look at the unintended problems that it has caused to parties at the tribunals. To the extent that the materials and evidences that petitioners and respondents alike would rely on to build their cases or defenses are with agencies whose commitment they cannot determine, there is the likely scenario in which justice would still be denied some of those entitled to it simply because those statutorily in custody of those election materials such as Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the Police and other security agencies involved chose to be tardy and willfully unco-operative. Already, we have heard some petitioners complaining bitterly that they are not getting the expected support from INEC as far as the gathering of the needed evidence is concerned.
In view of the very limited time frame created under the Electoral Act for the processing of all complaints concerning the elections, we think it is imperative for all those concerned, be they the Police, INEC and party members and their agents, to proceed to pursue the matter with the urgency that it deserves as no useful purpose is served holding on to materials needed by petitioners with which to prosecute their complaints. Particularly in view of the mounting bitterness in the land following the flawed nature of the past elections at the various levels which the tribunal processes are supposed to rectify, any further obstacles, be they technical or procedural, deliberately or accidentally placed on the path of those seeking electoral justice, would amount to double jeopardy.
The beauty of the democratic process of electing national leadership is that any mistake and errors that are identified in the course of the elections are judicially corrected. That way, the inevitable disagreements over election results that would come up are peacefully resolved to the satisfaction of all. So far we have seen that happening in certain cases of which that of the restoration of the hitherto stolen mandate of Governor Peter Obi of Anambra State is a glaring example. Through peaceful litigation, the contestants in that case averted a possible breakdown of law and order as justice was finally done to the victim. But it would have been a totally different story if such a decent and lawful avenue was not made available to the petitioner or, where available, was unwittingly denied him through procedures that are too cumbersome and almost impossible to fulfill.
It is for this reason that we hereby appeal to all those who are in lawful custody of all the electoral materials that are necessary for the prosecution of the petitions to be more forthright in the discharge of their duties by making them available as and when requested. We concede that material storage and retrieval is not a part of the virtues of Nigeria’s bureaucracy but it is important that we recognise that the instant demands being made by those who want to use these materials as evidence at the tribunals are coming under special and desperate conditions which would also require special attention and diligence. To fail to do so in favor of those who need them would be subversive of their right to justice. It will not be out of place for us to also plead with the tribunals to devise creative ways to overcome the burden imposed by the new rules which, if care is not taken, may sacrifice substantial justice for operational speed.