Judicial Derobing Of Professor Jega

Prior to the appointment of the then firebrand university teacher Professor Attahiru Jega as the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), the public image of this body had nosedived just as majority of Nigerians viewed that institution as one of the most fatally corrupt public institution next to the discredited Nigerian Police Force.

The nomination by President Goodluck Jonathan of the boss of the electoral commission and his confirmation only few years back, was greeted with unrestrained optimism from critical segments of the Nigerian society who felt then that the media generated larger-than-life image of the erstwhile national president of the 'progressive -minded' Academic staff Union of Universities (ASUU) would impact positively on the electoral commission.

Recall that Attahiru Jega led the Academic staff union of Nigerian Universities during the infamous military contraption of a regime under the dictator-turned self made military President-General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida [rtd] and the union was on record to have waged relentless industrial war against the military elements who neglected the funding of the nation's universities to an all time low.

Abacha later emerged as the successor to the military tyrant-General IBB and dragged the administration of Nigerian Universities to the mud of infamy with the appointment ofserving military Generals as Vice Chancellors of Federal Universities. Even ivory towers like the Ahmadu Bello University and the University of Nigeria Nsukka were desecrated by the then late General Sani Abacha-headed military contraption. ASUU went to the trenches to battle these military gangs to a standstill.

About two years since this former radical university teacher was elevated to the position of chairman of the electoral commission, several botched and heavily compromised elections have been conducted whose outcome ended up been jettisoned by the competent election petition tribunals with damaging verdicts against the conduct of such elections marred by irregularities.

It is also on record that Attahiru Jega rolled out series of programs aimed at bringing about sanity in the conduct of elections even as his leadership severally told Nigerians that the era of electoral crimes and impunity were over but months after these series of propaganda it is clear to even innocent toddlers that no significant electoral regime change for the better has happened under Professor Jega's watch.

Instead, politicians have devised better and much more opaque ways and strategies of manipulating the outcome of elections in active partnership with some rogue officials of the electoral panel. Till date, no 'bigman' in INEC has been prosecuted for the monumental frauds that led to the nullification of several election results.

After the 2011 elections which was relatively adjudged freer than most elections, the electoral commission promised to bring to trial all arrested and indicted officials and registered voters accused of committing one infraction or the other just as the electoral panel stated that it has compiled a record of electoral offenders.

As I write, it is not on record that any electoral offender is behind bars for the offences committed before, during and immediately after the conduct of the 2011 election. Again, and sadly enough, no official of INEC has been prosecuted for the electoral atrocities that characterized aspects of the 2011 general elections.

Aside apparent failure to introduce any workable reforms within the rank and file of the officials of INEC, Professor Jega not long ago committed a major blunder or [ hara-kiri] when out of the blues he announced the deregistration of over two dozen political parties for partly failing to win any seat in all the elections conducted since 2011 general elections.

But I ask - why take dictatorial decision of choking up the political and democratic space through military - styled deregistration when the electoral commission failed to check excess pre-election campaign expenses of those few political parties in government that used their influence to get contractors to bankroll the 2011 general election campaign for these parties to the clear detriment of the weaker political parties now being witch hunted by INEC?

A situation whereby ruling parties at the center and the various federating units used their political might to convert public fund to campaign for re-election in the 2011 election without INEC wielding the big stick in line with extant statutory electoral provisions, the same agency cannot at the same time be seen flogging out of existence those marginal and 'powerless' political parties who have no political area of conquest from which to deep their hands to enrich their campaign fund with filthy lucre .

When INEC announced this deregistration, some of us denounced the action but Professor Jega maintained his unpopular and undemocratic stand as if to say 'IAM-HOLIER -THAN-THOU'.

Jega instead insisted that the act of infamy of deregistering weak political parties was in line with powers conferred on it by the Nigerian law. Interestingly, the ruling parties who have used their intimidating financial muscles to muzzle out other lesser political parties, praised the electoral commission to high heavens and the officials of INEC grinned from both sides of their mouths.

According to a statement signed by the then commission's Secretary Alhaji Abdulahi Kaugama and made available to journalists, INEC said the action was in exercise of its powers conferred on it pursuant to the I999 Constitution (as amended) and the Electoral Act 2010.

The statement read: 'In the exercise of the powers conferred on it by the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), the Independent National Electoral Commission has today, Thursday, December 6, 2012, de-registered the following political parties: African Liberation Party (ALP); Action Party of Nigeria (APN); African Political System (APS); Better Nigeria Progressive Party (BNPP); Congress for Democratic Change (CDC) and Community Party of Nigeria (CPN).

Other political parties de-registered include: Democratic Peoples Alliance (DPA); Freedom Party of Nigeria (FPN); Fresh Democratic Party (FDP); Hope Democratic Party (HDP); Justice Party (JP); Liberal Democratic Party of Nigeria (LDPN); Movement for Democracy and Justice (MDJ) and Movement for the Restoration and Defence of Democracy (MRDD).

Others are: Nigeria Advanced Party (NAP); New Democrats (ND); National Majority Democratic Party (NMDP); National Movement of Progressive Party (NMPP); National Reformation Party (NRP); National Solidarity Democratic Party (NSDP); Progressive Action Congress (PAC); Peoples Mandate Party (PMP); Peoples Progressive Party (PPP); Peoples Redemption Party (PRP); Peoples Salvation Party (PSP); Republican Party of Nigeria (RPN); United National Party for Development (UNPD) and United Nigeria Peoples Party (UNPP).

'The commission hereby reiterates its commitment to relating with political parties in accordance with extant laws and for the benefit of our electoral democracy.'

Those political parties affected by this apparent unpopular decision of INEC headed to the court of law to seek redress in compliance with section 6 of the constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria of 1999 (as amended).

On Monday 29th July 2013, the Federal High Court, Abuja division gave a good verdict voiding the infamous action of Jega-led INEC.

This spectacular judgment of the Federal High Court has effectively derobed this once larger-than-life 'big masquerade' whose beautifully qualitative professional antecedents won him several accolades upon his elevation by President Jonathan to mount the mantle of INEC chairmanship.

The court, presided over by Justice Gabriel Kolawole, also declared section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, which stipulates that political parties must win seats during state and National Assembly elections, as null and void.

INEC had while announcing the deregistration of the 28 parties on December 6, 2012 reportedly predicated its action on the section and the 1999 Constitution.

It is on record that one of the deregistered parties, Fresh Democratic Party, and its presidential candidate in 2011, Rev. Chris Okotie, challenged the action at the Abuja FHC. They argued that it breached their fundamental rights as guaranteed by the 1999 Constitution.

INEC, the Attorney-General of the Federation, the National Assembly and the Inspector-General of Police were listed as defendants in the suit in which the plaintiffs asked the court to make a declaration that the electoral body lacked the power to deregister the FDP except in accordance with the provisions of the constitution.

Another relief sought by the plaintiffs in the suit filed by Fred Agbaje, was a declaration that section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act, 2010 as amended, was unconstitutional, invalid, null and void to the extent that it breached the provisions of section 40 as well as sections 221 to 229 of the constitution.

They also asked the court to declare that the purported reliance by INEC on section 78 (7) (ii) of the said Electoral Act in deregistering FDP violated the provisions of sections 36, 38 and 40, as well as sections 221 to 222 of the constitution.

In his judgment , Justice Kolawole noted that those who drafted the 1999 Constitution did not contemplate deregistration of political parties.

He upbraided the National Assembly for its inexplicable decision to introduce the provisions in section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act as an instrument for the deregistration of political parties.

The judge described the provisions as legislative arbitrariness and mischief, noting that they could encourage a win-at-all-cost mentality by the political parties.

The judge held that while the National Assembly has the power to make laws, it has no power to 'smuggle in' a provision that a political party which fails to win seats in state and National Assembly elections should be deregistered.

He also held that INEC should have given the FDP a hearing before going ahead to deregister it.

Kolawole said, 'INEC would not have lost anything by issuing the 1st plaintiff (FDP) with a query to enhance the integrity of its decision. The statutory powers conferred on the 1st defendant (INEC) can be described as ministerial but when such power concerns deregistration of a political party, it becomes a quasi judicial power because after registration, a political party becomes a legal entity and acquires a legal right and you cannot take away such legal right without according the political party a hearing.'

Concluding, he said, 'Section 78 (7) (ii) of the Electoral Act 2010, as amended, is hereby declared null and void, in so far as the 1st plaintiff (FDP) was not heard before the decision was taken. The said decision is null and void.

'The 1st defendant's decision dated December 6, 2012 is declared invalid and is set aside.'

The presiding judge refused to grant the plaintiffs' prayer that the court should order the defendants to pay them N10m as compensatory damages.

As the court rose, INEC signified its intention to appeal the verdict, saying three earlier judgments validated the deregistration of the parties.

'INEC is appealing the judgment. Don't forget that there have been three previous judgments affirming the correctness of our action.

'This fourth judgment is different and it will be appealed,' said Kayode Idowu, Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Prof. Attahiru Jega.

One of the affected political parties, the Peoples Salvation Party, welcomed the court's decision in its own reaction.

It said the judgment would make the electoral body to realise that it must operate within the confines of the law.

INEC had better not waste public fund to embark on another miserably meaningless voyage of discovery in a futile attempt to get the appellate court to rule that it was just for a creation of the constitution like INEC to flagrantly abuse the Constitutionally protected fundamental right to association based on the now discredited section of the electoral Act which was smuggled in by the anti-democratic forces in the National Assembly.

As Oprah Winfrey would wisely say; 'real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not'.

INEC should leave the smaller political parties alone; resist attempt to stifle growth of democracy but instead should introduce policies to restore credibility to this badly dented commission so as to meet the overwhelming wishes of Nigerians to see reforms and positive changes introduced by the once feared trade unionist-Professor Attahiru Jega and his management team.

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Articles by Emmanuel Onwubiko