One question that has concentrated the minds of many Nigerians since the April elections is how to avoid, in the future, the colossal fraud that seriously blemished the exercise. To be sure, this is not an entirely new question. Long before the elections were conducted, pundits, with the benefit of hindsight, proffered many solutions.
The most prominent solution being that politicians should, this time around, embark on political education of the voters on how to protect their votes by exercising their franchise and staying back at the polling booths until their votes were counted.
Many Nigerians heeded the advice and tried to protect their votes. Despite the shenanigans by those to whom the election was a “do or die” affair, they voted and waited to ensure that their votes were not only counted but that they (votes), indeed, determined those that will superintend over the affairs of the Nigerian state in the next four years.
For their efforts, over 200 of them were murdered in cold blood and to add insult to injury, their votes were neither counted nor did it count at the end of the day. Most of the results were written in the comforts of the offices of the powers that be, and had no bearing whatsoever to what happened at the polling booths.
In the past three weeks, the tenor of this question has accentuated and this time, with a particular urgency. Again, many are proffering solutions but this time around, the advice is remarkably different from the pre-election advice. Many people, including the architects of the fraud, have advised the victims of their crime to go to the courts and seek redress. The cynicism of members of the ruling cabal, including President Olusegun Obasanjo himself, cannot be mistaken here.
But there are those who genuinely believe that if any institution of government can redress the great injustice visited on the people, that institution is the judiciary. Such abiding faith is hinged on the fact that Nigerian judges have shown exemplary courage and candour in the face of mind-boggling impunity by the outgoing administration. Such courage, many believe, will serve the cause of justice well at this critical time.
I share the same optimism. Without the judiciary, our country would have gone to the dogs a long time ago. Members of the Bench have proved indefatigable in the war against authoritarianism and arbitrariness, consistently pulling Nigeria back each time unconscionable political leaders take it to the edge of the precipice.
But to perform this onerous duty, the judges must also be proactive by ensuring that, this time around, the beneficiaries of this heinous crime are not only denied the fruits of their crime but also punished adequately for it.
How do I mean? In the next three weeks, those who were awarded victory would be sworn into office. Those of them who occupy executive positions will have unrestricted access to state funds. In a country where there is no difference between personal and public funds, they will prosecute the cases instituted against them at the election tribunals with public funds.
Of course, it goes without saying that this is grossly unfair. It is even more so because those who commit electoral crimes, which ought to be one of the most atrocious crimes in our statute books – subverting the sovereign will of the people – are not sanctioned even when they are found guilty.
So, one of the ways to ensure that such people are deterred in future is to ensure that those who rig elections are treated like the felons they are. They must not be allowed to reap any benefits from their criminal acts. This is where the judiciary will play its most important role to save this crooked democracy.
To achieve the desired result, four things need to be done.
First, the results of such elections must be upturned and those who, hitherto, were made to hold the wrong end of the electoral stick declared winners.
Second, if the felon(s) who rigged the election(s) had already been sworn in, any term of office they may have served by virtue of their fraudulent electoral victory must be erased from official records.
In other words, if someone was declared winner of a rigged election and subsequently he is sworn in as governor, for instance, if eventually the courts declare the election null and void, no-matter how long he had acted as a governor, he should never be addressed as such and no privileges attached to such an office should be extended to the fellow.
Whatever action such a person took while illegally occupying office must also be declared null and void. Such a fellow must be made to pay back whatever salaries and allowances he may have collected while in office to the coffers of the state.
It will simply be absurd to declare the process through which a man came to office illegal and yet allow him to reap the benefits that accrue there from.
Third, having wiped the slate clean, and the rightful winner having been re-instated, such a person must, as a matter of natural justice, serve out his term of office. This will serve as a deterrent to future election riggers.
And fourth, any person who is so indicted should not only be made to forfeit the position which he attained fraudulently but also he or she must be convicted and sanctioned appropriately.
Let me also state that all these measures have constitutional backing. And the judiciary needs to urgently set precedence with the pending case of Mr. Peter Obi, governor of Anambra State, who is a serial victim of Obasanjo’s duplicitous politics.
The facts of the Obi saga are well known. Obi contested and won the 2003 gubernatorial election in Anambra State on the platform of the All Progressives Grand Alliance (APGA). The election was wantonly rigged by the same cabal that rigged the April elections in the state. The product of that electoral heist, Dr. Chris Ngige, was subsequently sworn in and was in office for three years until he was thrown out by the courts last year and Obi sworn in.
Now, Section 180 (2) (a) of the 1999 Constitution says explicitly that: “Subject to the provisions of subsection (1) of this section, the Governor shall vacate his office at the expiration of a period of four years commencing from the date when – in the case of a person first elected as Governor under this Constitution, he took the Oath of Allegiance and oath of office.”
If Obi first took his oath of office on March 17, 2006, as indeed he did, it then means that four years there from will be March 17, 2010. Anything short of this will imply that Ngige, the man who occupied the position fraudulently, is deemed to have served three out of Obi’s four years. That will not only be grossly unfair to Obi, it then means that Ngige would have been, wittingly or unwittingly, rewarded for the crime of rigging election.
Electoral crimes have persisted in Nigeria because they are deemed profitable. The calculation is that even if the elections are quashed at the end of the day, the man who got into office by default must have maximised his time in office for self aggrandisement. If Ngige did not win the 2003 election, it will then be wrong to say he was a bona-fide governor of Anambra State. And if he was at no time the de jure governor of the state, the man who won the election, and has rightly been declared as the rightful winner, should then serve his term of office as prescribed by the constitution.
Some people have argued that this will create some logistics problems because governorship elections in the state will no longer be conducted at the same time as in other states. Maybe! But must we, because of problems of logistics, infract on the constitution?
Moreover, if Obi is forced to step down on May 29, having been in office for only a year and two months, and Mr. Nnamdi Uba is sworn in as governor, it then means that the same forces that perpetrated the 2003 crime as confessed by the younger Uba – Chris –, have benefited from that crime rather than being punished.
It is heart-warming that the Court of Appeal will preside over this weighty constitutional issue tomorrow, May 9. It is also worth noting that the Court appreciates that time is of the essence here hence their decision to grant Dr Ikpeazu’s motion for abridgement of time when the case up in March.
Since every other measure to exorcise the spectre of election rigging from our body-politic seems to have failed, our hope now lies entirely on the judiciary. Our indefatigable judges have to give an unambiguous signal that electoral crimes would be punished commensurately and that those who labour to subvert the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box would have laboured in vain at the end of the day.
If Obi gets justice in the courts, as he has always got, and as he should once again, the judiciary would be making that unambiguous statement that it will no longer be business as usual; that the days of profiteering from electoral fraud are gone for good.
In other words, the case before Justice James Ogebe and his brother Justices at the Court of Appeal sitting in Enugu goes beyond Peter Obi. It may be the solution to this shame that unconscionable men subject us to every four years.