BY: PHRANK SHAIBU
The step taken by the Supreme Court of Nigeria to consult and seek views of some legal luminaries on the very sensitive issue of tenure elongation which was brought before it by some governorship aspirants and the Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria against some State governors is very pleasing as it has expanded opportunities for Nigerians to contribute to the development of the nation’s democratic process.
The three legal giants have independently conducted their research and made their respective recommendations in a nonpartisan and transparent manner. Though the legal experts may well have played an important role in proffering advice and supporting their respective positions with some legal authorities, it still remains individual views on a vital national issue because the Supreme Court Judges as the ultimate deciders on legal issues will determine the legitimacy or not of tenure elongation. The final position of the Supreme Court which be made public tomorrow is a long awaited decision that will have diverse effect on Nigeria’s democracy especially on its modernisation of the electoral administration and transition processes.
Without necessarily seeking to interfere in the opinions of the legal gurus or attempting to pre-empt a case before the highest Court of law, it is important to state that the initial action taken by the Supreme Court in setting out to consult extensively before reaching a definitive judgment on a political issue of national significance is a wonderful trend toward making positive democratic changes that may restore integrity and public confidence in Nigeria’s democratic process especially given that the conduct of credible and acceptable elections has continued to haunt most developing countries.
In Nigeria, the process of strengthening the electoral process has been a recurring one. After so many years of military rule and several interrupted democratic dispensations to the return of seeming stable civil rule in 1999, the electoral law on the conduct of elections has been amended after every election resulting in the enactment of the 2001, 2006 and 2010 electoral acts. However, the issue of tenure elongation throws up some fundamental constitutional, legal, moral, economic, practical and strategic challenges that must be addressed to ensure that we raise the standard of our general elections to deepen our democracy.
At the moment, given the existing Appeal court ruling on elongation of tenure, already dates for holding gubernatorial elections have been scattered in such a way that presently five of Nigeria’s thirty six states conduct their elections on dates that are different from the general gubernatorial elections. Again, with a myriad of cases in different courts of law challenging the election results of 2011, it would not be surprising if after the election tribunals conclude their respective sittings, another five states or more join the tenure elongation camp with likelihood that other States may join after every general election until such a time that the so called date for gubernatorial general elections may have little or no relevance during general election year.
Presently, the case in the Supreme Court which challenges the constitutionality of elongation of tenure is set to be a judgement that will either rationalise or introduce greater consistency to the timetable for elections throughout the nation. However, beyond the legal battle, it is obvious that there are serious political or economic grounds to consider on the issue of tenure elongation. To understand the major consequence, it is important to realize that tenure elongation is a structural constraint to democratic governance in Africa as it brings with it inconsistency of election periods which is very detrimental to countries undergoing democratic growth with huge funding support from the International Community.
Inconsistency in electoral periods as a result of tenure elongation threatens the financial support of development partners particularly given that this may bring about incomprehensibility in monitoring elections and may erode the potency of INEC’s harmonised programme of activities. For example, an intervention agency like the UNDP which funds International Election Assessment Delegations to conduct programs that support democratic development in Africa, Asia, Europe, the former Soviet Union, the Americas and the Middle East may find it difficult to get involved in observing and assessing elections that do not have fixed periods. For emphasis, an agency like INEC which in the year 2011 was provided with a budget grant of 107 billion Naira approximately 535 million Euros to conduct the voter registration and the General Elections may lose the financial backing of the International community because of serious doubt on its credibility .in conducting elections without fixed period. Indeed, such will neither attract concrete nor continued response by the UN system and there may be decreased support from sympathetic partners like the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and European Union EU) on assistance to elections and necessary electoral reforms in Nigeria.
Granted that early elections can be held in case of resignation, ill-health, impeachment or death, nevertheless, fixed election periods are reliable, dependable dates that voters could count on and plan for, like the fixed date for America’s presidential elections: Every four years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November. However, while acknowledging that there are challenges in seeking to introduce greater consistency across elections; fixed election periods are the only fair and democratic way to ensure that we retain the goodwill of the international community.
Elections in Nigeria has to be more timely, efficiently targeted and coordinated to enable Nigeria access substantial funding from a basket of donor agencies in the interests of a more transparent and democratic system. However, in a situation where the Supreme court of Nigeria rules in favour of tenure elongation, it will not only discourage coherent international development assistance but diminish national efforts to build democratic practices and mechanisms that can foster stronger democratic accountability.
On the other hand, if the Supreme court ruling does not favour tenure elongation especially now that Primaries elections have already been conducted in some states, what it means is that the entire platform on which the conduct of the recent elections were based would collapse. Indeed, this would be a best option as political parties would have to revert to status quo.
Besides, Nigeria needs a real fixed election period and concrete days every Nigerian can depend upon. The need for fixed period election legislation cannot be overemphasized as it will create a regular cycle of planned general elections, with specific, predictable election dates and a fixed term for elected officers. The ruling of the Supreme Court of tomorrow may just provide the best solutions to resolving the political conflicts within the PDP in Kogi and Bayelsa states where the supporters of Alhaji Jibrin Isah Echocho and Timpriye Sylva claim their candidates are the people’s choice but for the machinations of the PDP leadership, democracy has been made to stand on its head.
*PHRANK SHAIBU,A public communications consultant wrote from Abuja.