Several months ago, I wrote an article on INEC which was published on the pages of some Nigerian newspapers. In that article, 2023 General elections: INEC will succeed, I had expressed some level of optimism on the ability of INEC to deliver fair and credible elections. There were two reasons why I was that optimistic and full of very high hopes. One, messages from INEC indicated that it had overhauled its electoral machine and from that exercise produced a silver bullet that would shoot down all forms of electoral malfeasance. Summary of the messages from INEC was that there was going to be a Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, BVAS, where the results of the elections were going to be uploaded in real time to a central database for all to see. It was not just the BVAS, but that the Electoral Act 2022 seemed to have lent credence to INEC claims that it was going for the kill, and would break the jinx of poor electoral conduct of Nigeria, and thereby produce a model for the rest of Africa. The second reason for my optimism was a personal encounter with INEC which left me with the impression that if the system were left to run without any entrenched interference, surely, INEC would deliver.
But at some point, I began to be doubtful. That point of doubt was at a seminar conducted by the Ministry of Justice in 2022. There, I found myself in the presence of Prof Tonnie Iredia who was one of the resource persons/facilitators. Hold on, you don’t encounter a Prof Tonnie Iredia and you don’t take a careful listening to what he has to say. Therefore, of all the things that were said in the two days that that seminar lasted, the only thing I took away was a statement from this erudite Prof, that the elections were not going to be decided by INEC, or the BVAS or being in possession of your personal voter’s card, PVC: but that those to make a decision on the outcome of the elections were not the voters or INEC but the lawyers and the police.
It was impossible for me to withdraw my article after I heard this. If the import of that statement did not sink on anyone at that seminar, my guess is that it began to sink in during the elections proper. Take for an example the pre-election scenario where certain individuals engaged in brazen voter intimidation and carried out acts inimical to the conduct of the elections. The Police did not move a baton against these individuals. Then during the election proper when there were rampant cases of ballot box snatching, voter intimidation, even with police present at those polling units and booths, they simply folded their arms and simply let well alone. Upon an inquiry, I was to find out that there was nowhere in the Electoral Act where provisions were made for police intervention at such instances of electoral violence and misconduct.
And so after the BVAS obviously failed to deliver, or was made to fail to deliver on the credibility of the 2023 elections, an argument over the declaration of Bola Tinubu as winner of the elections arose over the interpretation of Section 134 of the Electoral Act 2022. A most curious outcome of that INEC declaration of Bola Tinubu as winner of that election was that it was the lawyers, many with little or no knowledge of the innards of modern linguistic rules and regulations who were making all kinds of interpretations – and these interpretations were often premised on whatever aisle of the debate they belonged rather than on empirical linguistic standards. It was not the linguists, not the grammarians, not the editors but the lawyers. Under that aberrant scenario, would it be hard to imagine the what the outcome would be where a major surgical operation is to be conducted and a tailor is invited to come perform that operation instead of a surgeon?
We know that the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended) gives the judiciary the power to ‘interpret’ the laws. However, part of what has made the argument on the interpretation of some sections of the Electoral Act, 2022 as convoluted as they are today, is that the stakeholders who should lend a hand or voice with the interpretation of contentious section and give expert advice – the linguists, media and grammarians – (members of the Fourth Estate) appear dormant in hibernation, have abdicated their roles, and conferred that power of interpretation to people with very abundant knowledge of the law but with insufficient proficiency with the language with which contentious provisions of the Electoral Act are set out. I give you an example – lawyers trained in Nigerian universities spend just a session taking courses in English departments familiarizing themselves with rudiments of Shakespearean grammar, a grammar based on a dead and long discarded language because of its many inconsistencies and incompetence at meeting the dynamics of contemporary life. Over the years, most of the lawyers become ‘learned’ in the fine art of this inconsistent and incompetent aspect of the language and go on to make life and death decisions. If anybody will be surprised that the EU Final Report 2023 was to mention two lawyers – Festus Keyamo, SAN, and Fani Kayode – as purveyors of fake news, I will not be, and that’s because of some of the issues that we are discussing here.
Because we believe that some of these legal misinterpretations are not deliberate but are made based on guidelines written in a dead language, we recommend a review of our laws and statute books. We also ask the amigo lawyers to confer with their ‘learned’ friends in the media and linguistic circles prior to making any critical legal interpretations.