Kano: Why court of public opinion can’t lead discussion – Ezenwa 

Ezenwa Nwagwu, the Chairman Partners for Electoral Reform and member Working Group of Watching The Vote, YIAGA Africa. The public accountability and democratic reforms advocate, in this interview, speaks about the recent verdict of Appeal Court in Kano state, why Nigerians should respect institutions and why the burden of proof lies on those making allegations against judges. BODE OLAGOKE reports. 

What is your reaction to the recent Appeal court judgement on the Kano governorship election, considering the fact that the Supreme Court held that nobody has the right to question the decision of the court as far as party nomination is concerned?

Well, I think you need to, first, be very clear. Oftentimes, the court of public opinion thrives on emotion and ignorance. If I asked you now, whether you have read that judgment of the Court of Appeal and the reasons it adduced for particular cases, because every case has its different understanding and the law is wide. It is important that before you comment, do not comment based on what you hear somebody saying. It is important that you avail yourself the opportunity of seeing (reading the judgement). If you go and read why the Court of Appeal held that position, you may be shocked that certain things were not done properly by the people who are raising those issues in the court of public opinion. Let me give you an instance. Before the presidential election, some people were already taking a position on what the outcome of the court will be. We saw lawyers who were not practising law inside the courts, they were practicing it on television. Their law was practised on television. Even, what lay people like us understood clearly about the elections through long period of engagement and participation with this process, those lawyers did not know until the Presidential Petition Court had a masterclass on electoral jurisprudence for all of us for 12 hours and taught us simple issues about procedure in elections, evidence. Did you have party agents? Are your party agents part of your witnesses? No. The political parties did not bring party agents to court who were the people at the polling units, at the granular level. But they were posting everywhere, and making anybody who says anything to the contrary looked like you were the bad guys. The court came and exposed those things. My sense always is that I do not think that it is right to castigate a judgment that you have not read based on the interpretation of partisans. Now, when I mean partisans in a court case, lawyers are either for or against. So when you listen to a lawyer, 1000 of them have different opinion on ‘but’ and ‘when’, in the Constitution or in the Electoral Act. 1000 of them have different opinions. So, when you are talking to this lawyer, the lawyer will tell you that according to the law, But the judge is the one who has a wider view of all the arguments. My sense is that we should respect them and even if we don’t respect them, and castigate a particular judgement, we should not paint a black tag on the whole institution, because this same institutions, like you were referring to, also were the ones who gave judgment in Bauchi, who gave the judgment in Delta, who gave judgment in Imo, against the ruling party and such other episodic interventions that they have done that gave hope. So if we take those who are side by side, and then put them in places where we probably don’t understand, or where even they erred, it is not enough to excoriate completely the whole institution. And that is the whole thing that was being done with INEC. Oh, the election was this, and you ask people, this electoral process, this thing is a process, it is not an event. Which particular part of this process do you have problems with? Of course, it was the upload of the result on IReV. Now, that particular action was just a very little part of the whole process. The whole authentication and voting, results at the polling units, all of those things, according to the data for the 2023 elections, went well. We have held on to one activity, out of almost more than 100 activities that were done through 2023 elections. And on the basis of that, we want to say the election was… There is just that thing about wanting to pull down, destroy those institutions, and then create the argument for an alternative that is dangerous. That alternative is that people will say, you know this democracy is no longer working for us, we can go back to the military. The people who made that argument, they were not expelled from the university, they were not detained, they didn’t lose their lives for this democracy. There are even those who made the argument who were merchants in the struggle for democracy. They were business people. That period was a period of business for them. So, those of us who sacrificed our youth, who lost our studentship, had to go to court, the court had to recall us and all of those issues will not sit pretty and watch people do the kind of things they are doing right now with these institutions. And it is only natural that we see it that way. Does that mean that everything went well? Certainly no! But if there’s a difference between criticism and malicious slander, where people just want to destroy a process, the changes that we look for, we can begin to talk about how we how we ensure that we do proper electronic voting and then it has to be instrumental because there is no electronic voting anywhere that is complete, it is still Bi-modal— the manual going side by side with with electronic. There is no country where you have complete electronic management of the electoral process. It is still manual and so we can increase more and more the technology component of our elections. We can expand the space by independent candidacy. We can also look at diaspora voting where it is possible. At least, let us take it away from the law, in a way that guarantees that our citizens who live outside the country can cast their votes.  We have to make it clear that we are all about expanding the democratic space, improving the capacity of the electoral management body to also deal with its own issues internally. 

The sabotage, the subterfuge internally by some INEC staff who hawk solutions to politicians that they can help them do this and that needs to be exposed and punished. And incidentally, INEC is in the forefront of doing that. It has its own staff being tried in law courts as we speak today. There is no institution that has caught under the kind of ferocious attack like that institution, INEC.  214 attacks before the 2023 election on its facilities. It means that we have to really respect those institutions and work to see how we consolidate this democracy.

What kind of reforms should they pursue so that the citizens will also see when they give judgment?

Election is not an emotion. Two things: what are you dealing with? Are you dealing with ignorance or mischief? There are two issues, where a lawyer knows that he has a bad case, does he come and say I have a bad case? He does not say I have a bad case. It tells you that the case, we will see what we can do and then when he fails in the first instance, he said let’s go to the Appeal. And then when he finishes, he says let’s go to the Supreme Court. You’re not going there free, they are paying money. And he knows ab initio that he wants to see whether he can wriggle it out through technicalities or other things.  

Do you think the judiciary has a constitutional right to declare any particular candidate the winner of an election, instead of ordering a rerun?

The Constitution empowers them to do the work that they are doing. If by the provisions of the Constitution and the Electoral Act, they find it that somebody did not even qualify, if you do not qualify to stand for an election, let’s say you are not 18 years old, let’s say you are not in Nigerian and your party goes and puts you forward to run for office when you do not qualify. Or when the Constitution says you don’t qualify, if you run, all your running is nullity, you wasted your energy. So, the court will say, even if you win, you are not the rightful owner of this position. You can be crying, you can be shouting, but most times what has happened is that the people who are in the wrong are the loudest. They are the ones who made the biggest noise and noise is attractive to the ordinary person. 

In regards to elections, what kind of reforms do you want to see in the judiciary?

What we need is more and more training for judges. When you say judiciary, you are also talking about lawyers, so you’re not just talking about judges. You are talking about lawyers, you are talking about the bench and the bar. You need increased training for the judges. Election and electoral matters are a difficult issue. It’s not as easy as a lot of people would like to see it. Many lawyers run away from it because the burden of proof is on you that is alleging. 

There have been allegations of corruption against some judges, especially, the recent Kano judgement?

We cannot be talking about Kano because it will go to the Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court says what the Court of Appeal did was wrong, then, that is it. Until that happens, because of the specific engagement with that issue, only the judges who have the different evidences can make a call on it. We cannot take the court of public opinion above the court of experts. The court of public opinion should not be leading this discussion.

Are you saying we should not talk about any alleged corruption among the judges regarding this judgment?

If for instance, you are alleging, don’t allege in the media, allege through the proper channels. For instance, if I want to say that a judge is corrupt, I will go to the National Judicial Council. I can share that document with the media, where I will depose an affidavit, saying this judge is corrupt.  If you’re not quoting from that document, you are spreading rumour and hearsay.  Because the lawyer who thinks that the judgment was against him, or if he thinks the judge is corrupt, he is knowledgeable about where to take the matter to.