The controversy over credible certificate as the condition for electoral eligibility ought to be intended for constitution review, writes Bolaji Adebiyi
Sometime in 1999 or thereabout The Punch’s correspondent covering the Independent National Electoral Commission interviewed Justice Ephraim Akpata, then the national chairman of the electoral body on a raging controversy over the locus of power to determine a candidate’s eligibility. At that time a number of persons reputed to have questionable character had gained entrance into political power having been elected into the federal legislature. A couple of them were also elected into the state Houses of Assembly.
An enraged civil society wondered aloud how that could have happened even when some of its own leading members shunned the immediate post-military era elections on the ground that the departing military regime could not be trusted. Expectedly, INEC which conducted the election became the scapegoat. When approached by The Punch correspondent, Akpata minced no word in rejecting blame.
Eligibility, he argued, ought to be decided by the electorate and not by any other person or group be they security agents or electoral officials. The electorate, he argued further, had a right to make a wrong choice and correct itself thereafter if it realised it had made a mistake.
Coming from a retired justice of the then highly revered Supreme Court, no serious mind could argue against his essentially principled position. Years later his position became vindicated. With the mutation of the electoral law, the commission was empowered to disqualify candidates that did not meet certain requirements of the law. That power was latent under Abel Guobadia, a first-class scientist with an equal measure of high integrity and moral standing.
But under Maurice Iwu, another first-class brain and President Olusegun Obasanjo’s second chairman of the electoral body, the political abuse that Akpata referenced came to life with reckless abandon as political opponents were brought under the sledgehammer of concocted eligibility infractions. There emerged a gale of questionable disqualifications. So brazen was the Obasanjo administration in its misuse of the power of the electoral body that an attempt was made to disqualify Atiku Abubakar, the vice-president who had fallen out with his principal
The Supreme Court would have to intervene upon a litany of lawsuits filed by Atiku challenging his harassment by the electoral body at the behest of Obasanjo who had become a law on to himself. Atiku was not alone. There was also Ifeanyi Ararume, a wealthy senator who wanted to become the governor of Imo State on the platform of the Peoples Democratic Party, as well as Rotimi Amaechi, former speaker of River State House of Assembly who wanted to become the state governor with the flag of the PDP. All of them approached the courts and fought all the way to the apex court.
In what later became known as protest judgments, the Supreme Court intervened decisively on the side of the harassed and tied the hands of the electoral commission, forcing it to bark down and allow at least Atiku and Ararume to be on the ballot of the 2007 general elections. Those were the ones that had the liver to stand up to Obasanjo’s bully. The rest that could not, just went home to lick their wounds.
Emboldened by the apex court, the federal legislature, essentially in the enlightened self-interest of its members, moved to curb the unbridled influence of the executive on the electoral commission by whittling down its powers over eligibility. And so, under the Electoral Act 2010, most of the commission’s powers to determine eligibility were removed and donated to the law courts, which effectively and jealously guarded its possession to date.
However, as a result of the incessant abuse of the court process by politicians in connivance with some malleable judges, the 2nd amendment to the 1999 Constitution as altered returned some of the powers to INEC with regards to the supervisory powers granted it to monitor candidates’ selection process of the parties and formulate rules to guide the conduct of general elections. This restored but measured power was what INEC used in 2019 to overturn the state congress of the All Progressives Congress for the nomination of its governorship candidate for Zamfara State.
Several judgments of the Supreme Court have also strengthened the hands of INEC in this regard, with a couple of sections in the Electoral Act 2022 providing for a compulsory supervisory role for the commission in the selection of candidates by the political parties.
Following the inability of some candidates to back their eligibility claims with documentary evidence, the issue has arisen of whether INEC or any other agency of government should not verify and determine the status of such candidates. In other words, does INEC’s monitoring power includes resolving questionable eligibility claims?
This no doubt would revive the old debate that Akpata attempted to settle in 1999. Should candidates who have questionable eligibility claims be subjected to vetting by an agency of the executive body before they can be exposed to the electorate for its evaluation?
Section 318 of the 1999 Constitution as altered appears to have answered this question in the affirmative when it defines the certificate eligibility in unambiguous terms and stated the determining agency as INEC that it gives the prerogatives to assess and accept or reject the claims of a candidate. In this section, a demonstration of “the ability to read, write, understand and communicate in the English language to the satisfaction of the Independent National Electoral Commission, and any other qualification acceptable INEC,” would suffice.
Atiku’s case challenging Buhari’s 2019 presidential election victory obviously failed on the basis of this simple provision of the constitution and its modest interpretation by the Supreme Court.
So, those who are complaining about the questionable certificates of certain candidates in the race for the 2023 general election would appear to be labouring in vain, except they move for an amendment to the constitution that provides for a very weak educational eligibility criterion for the electoral contests in the country.