Results from Nigeria's general elections were under scrutiny in May 2023 as courts considered a number of petitions.
Following the vote, which took place in February and March, the local newspaper Vanguard estimated that 327 petitions had been filed with election tribunals across the country.
President-elect Bola Tinubu’s victory was one of those under the microscope, as rivals challenged his election. This as as the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission (Inec) insisted it had done its job as referee well, pushing back on allegations of irregularities.
Tinubu is due to be sworn in on 29 May, but the decision on whether he will serve out his term now rests with an election petition tribunal. The tribunal began sitting on 8 May.
In this analysis, we take a closer look at the petition system.
Courts: A permanent feature in Nigeria’s electoral system
But a curious feature is that no tribunal has ever overturned a result at this level. However, governorship, senate and house of representatives results have been altered by court judgments.
How election tribunals are formed in Nigeria
These tribunals are set up by the court of appeal at least 30 days before the elections. Judges are appointed by the president of the court of appeal and, for cases relating to governorship and legislative elections, in consultation with the chief judge of the state.
Who can submit a petition to the tribunals?
The 2022 electoral act limits the right to petition the tribunals to the candidates or political parties that participated in the election.
According to the law, the grounds for filing a petition against the outcome of an election include:
- The candidate was not qualified to stand for election
- Corrupt practices
- Failure to comply with the electoral law
- The candidate whose victory is being challenged did not receive a majority of the valid votes cast in the election
The law stipulates that any candidate or political party wishing to file a petition challenging the outcome of an election must do so within 21 days of the announcement of the election results.
The tribunal must also announce its decision within 180 days of the filing of the petition.
The process of filing a petition
Challenging an election result starts with a petition to the relevant election tribunal.
The petitioner must prove that the election did not follow the established guidelines. However, the tribunal will not set aside an election if the non-compliance did not materially affect the outcome of the election.
The tribunal then delivers its verdict. It can either uphold the result of the election, order a re-run or declare a new winner.
Petitions filed against Tinubu’s victory
At time of publication, a verdict was not expected before Tinubu's inauguration on 29 May.
There have been calls from some quarters for the tribunal process to be completed before the declared winner is sworn in.
The lawyer told local channel Arise TV that he understood the Labour Party’s concerns about an inauguration in the middle of a petition.
“Where we strike the balance is to give our best possible shots to finish the petitions,” he said.
Chidi Odinkalu, a lawyer and former chair of Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission, told Africa Check that the ideal situation would have been for the tribunal to have completed its work before the swearing in ceremony.
“A situation in which a person whose mandate is in court finds they are placed in a position to use state resources and assets to defend the mandate under contest is evidently far from ideal or equitable,” he said.
Governors have been sacked by election tribunals
Over the years, several governors and legislators have been dismissed by electoral tribunals after being sworn in. These include:
- Chris Ngige: A medical doctor turned politician, Ngige was declared the winner of the 2003 gubernatorial election in the southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra. However, he was sacked by the tribunal in 2005, which ruled that he did not win a majority of the votes cast in the election.
- Murtala Nyako: In 2007, a tribunal annulled Nyako’s election as governor of Adamawa state in the northeast and ordered a new election be conducted within 90 days.
- Aliyu Wamakko: In 2008, the election tribunal ruled that Wamakko was not qualified to be the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate in the 2007 election and ordered a fresh election.
- Okezie Ikpeazu: In 2016, Ikpeazu, the governor of Abia state, was sacked by the tribunal, which declared Alex Otti of the All Progressives Grand Alliance the winner of the election.
Good and not-so-good: civil society weighs in
Some civil society organisations have praised the role of electoral tribunals in resolving disputes and upholding the rule of law. But others have raised concerns about the tribunals’ independence and impartiality.
In the past, there has also been criticism of the slow pace of justice in election tribunals, noting that cases can take several years to resolve, undermining public confidence in the process.
In July 2021, a federal high court and a state high court ruled in favour of two different PDP candidates for governor and both courts ordered Inec to publish the name of the respective aspirant as the party’s candidate.
Election petitions ‘a strain on Nigeria’s judiciary’’
Every case filed in court strained the judiciary, Odinkalu told Africa Check.
“The only question, therefore, is not whether election petitions put a strain on the judiciary but to what extent they do so. Clearly now, it is intolerable.”
The lawyer said the political disputes had become toxic to the judiciary in many ways.
“First, they preoccupy judges so much that they no longer get time for routine and regular cases. So, they are the cause of interminable delay in court.”
Second, the cases “tarnished the intangible asset of judicial credibility”, he said, citing what he said was a widespread perception that judges were beholden to politicians.
“Third, because of election petitions, politicians now want to populate the judiciary with far from ideal characters so that they will get their people in the tribunals when the time comes.”
Speaking at the conferment ceremony of a senior advocate in November 2022, Yakubu Maikyau, the president of the Nigerian Bar Association, said already overworked lawyers were under more pressure because of the time limit imposed by the constitution.
How much has Inec budgeted for petitions?
Inec allocates part of its budget to legal matters, including the cost of election tribunals and the resolution of electoral disputes.
It also set aside another N886 million ($1.9million) for legal drafting and clearance.
The commission also provides legal assistance to its officials and ad-hoc staff, who may be involved in legal cases arising from the elections.
Although the tribunal offers hope to aggrieved politicians and their supporters, Odinkalu said the responsibility of making the electoral process credible lies with Inec.
“The election petition process, in a way, is a measure of that public confidence. So, there is a relationship of inverse proportionality between the number of election petitions on the one hand and public confidence in elections on the other."