Nigeria’s journey towards democratic rule since 1999 has been marked by its fair share of electoral disputes. However, to ensure a transparent and just electoral process, the country’s constitution mandates the establishment of independent election tribunals empowered to hear and resolve complaints and petitions related to elections. Interestingly, Section 285 of the Nigerian constitution and Section 130 of the Electoral Act specify that the Election Petition Tribunal must be constituted at least 30 days before the election and open its registry for business seven days before the election.
Over the years, election tribunals in Nigeria have played a critical role in resolving electoral disputes and upholding the integrity of the democratic process. According to an analysis from Dataphyte, there have been 3,959 petitions filed in the five general elections held in Nigeria since 2003, with 560 petitions in 2003, 1290 petitions in 2007, 732 petitions in 2011, 611 petitions in 2015, and 766 petitions in 2019.
The role of election tribunals in Nigeria is multi-faceted. First and foremost, they are responsible for hearing and determining petitions arising from disputes over the conduct of elections. These disputes may include allegations of electoral malpractice, irregularities, or fraud. The tribunals can nullify elections deemed to have been conducted violating the Electoral Act or the Constitution.
Secondly, election tribunals are responsible for interpreting and applying election laws in Nigeria. This includes the Electoral Act, the Constitution, and other relevant electoral guidelines or regulations. The tribunals’ understanding of these laws can shape the direction of future elections and contribute to the development of electoral jurisprudence in Nigeria.
Thirdly, election tribunals are responsible for maintaining the independence and impartiality of the electoral process. This is particularly important given Nigerian politics’ polarised and often contentious nature. Therefore, the tribunals must ensure their decisions are based solely on the evidence presented before them and not influenced by external factors such as political pressure or bias.
Finally, election tribunals hold electoral officials and political actors accountable for their actions during elections. This includes the conduct of electoral officers, security agencies, political parties, candidates, and voters. By providing a forum for resolving electoral disputes, election tribunals can deter future violations of electoral laws and promote adherence to democratic norms and values.
Despite the critical role of election tribunals in Nigeria’s democratic process, there have been concerns about their effectiveness and independence. Some critics have argued that tribunals are susceptible to political influence and manipulation, which can compromise the integrity of their decisions. Others have cited the slow pace of justice delivery and the lack of adequate resources as significant challenges facing the tribunals.
To address these challenges, there have been calls for reforming Nigeria’s electoral laws and strengthening the capacity of election tribunals. This includes increasing the number of tribunals, providing adequate funding and resources, and improving tribunal members’ and staff’s training and welfare.
In conclusion, the role of election tribunals in Nigeria’s democratic process cannot be overstated. They are critical in resolving electoral disputes, upholding the rule of law, and promoting democratic values and norms. However, to ensure the effectiveness and independence of election tribunals, there is a need for ongoing reforms and investments in their capacity and resources.