The call for Electoral Offences Tribunal - The Sun

By The Citizen

The United States, last week, threw its weight behind the push for Nigeria to establish an Electoral Offences Tribunal to try criminal cases arising from the conduct of local elections. It said this would be one sure way of checking   electoral fraud, violence and other crimes associated with elections in the country.

The US position was made public by its Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Ms Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who led a 23-man team to the Nigeria-US Bi-National Commission working group's meeting on good governance, transparency and integrity, in Abuja.

The US minister, who argued that such a tribunal would deter election violence, further affirmed that the Obama government stands 'with the Nigerian people who say loudly that they would not accept electoral tampering, overly heated rhetoric, vote selling or buying, and violence'. She, therefore, called on the National Assembly to pass a legislation that would establish the tribunal.

Incidentally, Ms Thomas-Greenfield, in this robust articulation of America's recommendation, merely amplified a position that has long been canvassed by President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been advocating an electoral offences tribunal right from when he was Vice President.

Not too long ago, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Prof. Attahiru Jega, also made a case for the tribunal. Jega's position was probably informed by the perceived slowness of the conventional court system, which appears to make it impossible to prosecute the thousands of cases of electoral offences that INEC said it gathered from the 2011 general elections alone.

Much as we appreciate the frustrations of those proposing the establishment of an electoral offences tribunal, we believe that establishing such a tribunal would amount to a duplication of the responsibilities already entrusted to the existing election petition tribunals. Section 142 of the Electoral Act, 2010 provides that 'without prejudice to the provisions of section 294 of the constitution …an election and an appeal arising therefrom, under this Act, shall be given accelerated hearing and shall have precedence over all other cases or matters before the Tribunal or Court.'

The same Electoral Act 2010 goes further to explain the cases that can be brought before the tribunal to include both 'civil' and 'criminal' cases. It also makes provision for cases, particularly the criminal ones, to be transferred to regular courts (with appellate facilities). This is to avoid instances of miscarriage of justice if an ad hoc tribunal is given fulsome powers on such criminal matters.

So, clearly, our statutes already have provisions for the prosecution of electoral offenders. It is these provisions that the federal government should seek to enforce, instead of toying with enacting another law, or establishing other tribunals.

Of course, we agree with the proponents of the election offences tribunal on the need to bring electoral offenders to justice. Until we begin to convict and, probably, jail people for electoral offences, we are not likely to see any abatement in incidences of election fraud in Nigeria. In fact, as successive offenders continue to get away with the crime, prospective offenders are emboldened to act with even more impunity.

But, much as we are in agreement that electoral offenders ought to be brought to book, we are not very comfortable with the idea of establishing   another tribunal to try election offences. For us, the proliferation of such tribunals, task forces and ad hoc commissions is an admission that our regular judicial system has failed. Even the election petitions tribunals have concentrated more on clearing and nullifying elections (civil), while largely ignoring the other (criminal) aspect of their brief.

Besides that, unlike the argument for the Election Petitions Tribunal, which is informed by the sheer number of cases which have to be disposed of before the swearing-in date of returned candidates, there is really no such time pressure on cases of election crime. These allow a lot more time.

Secondly, there is still no evidence to indicate that the courts are unable to handle criminal cases arising from our elections. The truth is that the courts have not been given the chance to try. So, the claim that the courts are slow, or not enough, does not arise

Oftentimes, when cases drag in court, it is easy to blame the judges and accuse defence attorneys of slowing down the wheel of justice, but we forget that on several occasions, the prosecution, which usually has the burden of proof, fails to build water-tight cases against accused persons. This often leaves judges with no choice than to acquit suspects, rather than run the risk of convicting an innocent person.

The onus, therefore, is on the police, INEC, and the other agencies of state concerned with prosecution to build strong cases that can stand the test of legal scrutiny against suspected electoral offenders, instead of seeking special tribunals for their trial. We cannot continue to establish special tribunals for different crimes ranging from corruption, election offences, armed robbery, bank fraud etc.

We also have to discourage this practice of government prosecutors seeking to convict suspects without evidence, by either shopping for 'friendly' judges in the regular courts or resorting to malleable tribunals, where suspects mostly come in guilty and stand convicted, even before trial begins.

But, while we advocate a strengthening of the courts, as against the creation of a multiplicity of tribunals, we must not lose sight of the fact that the push for an electoral offences tribunal is actually a sad commentary on the Nigerian judiciary. It should, therefore, be a wake-up call to both the Bar and the Bench to address the issue of inordinate delays in our courts. These delays tend to convey the impression that the lawyers and judges deliberately play on legal technicalities to help offenders evade justice.

If, however, it is decided that an electoral offences tribunal is the best way to go, it will be necessary for all stakeholders in the electoral process to keep in mind the fact that the ultimate goal is to give Nigeria freer and fairer elections.