The Role of the Bar in Electoral Justice

The African Union in its 39th ordinary session in Durban, South Africa in the year 2002, identified the template for a credible electoral system. Prominent in this template is the need to have an independent and credible judicial process. Mackenzie had earlier in 1976 underscored the importance of an independence judiciary to interpret electoral laws. The whole concept and practice of democracy recognise the integral role of the judiciary in the electoral system. Electoral conflict management is central in safeguarding the credibility of the process and the sanctity of the ballot. Conflicts are bound to occur in an electoral system. However it is the capacity of the judiciary to contain these issues that determines in most cases whether an electoral process is credible.', 'In Nigeria with our long list of electoral mishaps, the importance of electoral justice cannot be overemphasised. Moreover the prevailing concept of seeing election as a process and not an event presupposes a strict compliance to the law in every sphere of the electoral process. In recognition of the need for electoral justice, the 1999 Constitution in section 285, provides for the establishment of election tribunals charged with the determination of election petitions.

Central again to the judicial system is the Bar. It is the lawyers who will come before the courts and tribunal to canvass cases on behalf of their clients. The judges will always decide cases mainly on the facts presented before them by the lawyers.

This makes the role of lawyers in the electoral justice process very important. History has shown that lawyers can make or mar the process. In the recent past, election petition process had lingered on for more than two years.

The Anambra State constitutional crisis occasioned by the fact that the petition on the gubernatorial elections lingered for up to three years brings to fore the dysfunctional nature of the petition process. The danger here is that when people loose faith with the petition process, they resort to self-help in addressing election conflict. Moreover, governance is negatively affected because of the uncertainties that follow an unending petition process.

It is in recognition of the above that the Nigerian Bar Association in collaboration with IFES embarked on electoral justice training and workshop for lawyers. The two day event centred on identifying problems associated with the extant electoral petition provisions; sensitising lawyers on proper conducts to be followed and making recommendations on how to make the system better. Participants were drawn from almost every part of the country.

The general consensus was that the election petition process as presently constituted is flawed. In spite of the fact that most of the inadequacies identified would need legislative intervention to cure, lawyers in the interim can ensure within the identified constraints that substantial justice is done in the tribunal.

The gathering underscored the fact that there can be no electoral justice in Nigeria without the full participation and commitment of the members of the Bar. After the break-out sessions and final deliberations in the plenary, participants decided as follows:

-That there is urgent need for both lawyers and judges to take out time and study the provisions of the electoral tribunal process and strive in their activities in the tribunal to give effect to the substantive intent of the law.

- Lawyers should acquaint themselves with the innovative frontloading system and support the effort made by the President of the Court of Appeal to cure delay in the process

-It is the duty of lawyers (moral and legal duty) to help and ensure that all the documents needed to properly determine petitions are brought before the court timeously.

-The NBA should constitute a monitoring team to monitor the conducts of lawyers in the tribunals

-The new rules of professional ethics should further be publicised by the Bar and the penalties therein strictly applied especially at the election tribunals. Lawyers were encouraged to acquaint themselves with the new rules

- Irrelevant evidence should not be introduce with the sole aim of delaying the proceedings of the court

-Frivolous applications and technicalities must be avoided by lawyers

-Legal advisers of political parties should be ethically and morally upright in giving advise to their clients.

The point was made in this workshop that the work of democracy consolidation is one that involves every Nigerian and lawyers by the nature of their profession, should be vanguard of the process. Accepted that the lawyer has to earn a living by going to court to represent clients, truncating the democratic process through frivolous application just for the sake of temporal financial relief is a disservice to justice and to the future of our country.

The Bar should protect its sacred mandate of ministers in the temple of justice. The time to save the nation and restore or endorse the sacred mandate of Nigerians is now. The world is watching.