The Independent National Electoral Commission has budgeted over N3bn to defend the results of the February 25 presidential and national assembly election and the March 18 governorship and state assembly polls.
The PUNCH reports that several candidates who lost in the elections have filed petitions at the presidential and state election petition tribunals to challenge the outcome of the polls.
So far, over 100 election petitions have been filed by aggrieved candidates and their parties across the country.
The presidential candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar; the Labour Party, Peter Obi; the Action Alliance, Solomon Okangbuan; Allied People’s Movement, Chichi Ojei, have also filed petitions for the nullification of the presidential election results.
INEC had on March 1 declared the All Progressives Congress presidential candidate, Bola Tinubu, as the winner of the February 25 presidential election, but the five candidates filed petitions seeking the nullification of the poll.
Also, election petition tribunals in over 12 states have equally received petitions from National Assembly candidates who are not satisfied with the results of the just concluded elections.
The states where the petitions had been received included Edo, Plateau, Ondo, Kwara, Ogun, Bayelsa, Oyo, Osun, Ekiti, Bauchi, Lagos and Niger states.
Some aggrieved candidates had protested in Ogun and Nasarawa states, vowing to challenge the results of the elections in court.
Last November, the INEC Chairman, Mahmood Yakubu lamented that the commission was handling over 600 cases in several courts across the federation.
Speaking at a capacity-building workshop for over 300 judges that would handle election disputes, he revealed that the cases pending against the electoral body relate to the conduct of primaries by political parties.
However, INEC in its Election Project Plan for the 2023 general election earmarked N3b for the prosecution of election-related cases.
The document which was obtained on Sunday read, in part, “Litigation and prosecution: N2,104,965,000 (2022) and #3,087,195,425 (2023). Total, N5,192,160,425.’’
The INEC election project plan also showed that the electoral umpire budgeted N886.2m for legal drafting and clearance in 2022 and 2023.
The commission allocated N337.4m for legal drafting and clearance in 2022 while N548.7m was budgeted for the same item for this year.
The PUNCH could not confirm the number of lawyers the electoral commission would engage to handle the numerous election petition cases lodged at the tribunals.
The Chief Press Secretary to the INEC chairman, Rotimi Oyekanmi said he did not know the number of solicitors that would be employed by the commission when asked on Sunday.
But the PDP and the All Progressives Grand Alliance have chided the commission over the amount budgeted for litigations, saying INEC must be above board.
Speaking in a telephone conversation with our correspondent on Sunday, the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Debo Ologunagba, urged the media to ‘rise and condemn the wastefulness of INEC.’’
He said, “Nigerians should ask INEC why they are spending so much to defend election cases. We have condemned the conduct of the 2023 general elections by INEC. The media should rise and condemn the wastefulness of INEC.
“How can an institution that spent over N300bn for BVAS use another N3bn for litigations? The expectation was that there would be no crisis of credibility after the deployment of BVAS.”
Similarly, APGA National Chairman, Mr Victor Oye expressed worry over the huge amount the commission proposed to spend on the defence of the election it conducted.
“It is very worrisome. This shows that there are likely to be more election petitions in 2023 than we had in 2019 (election). It is not a good development because this huge amount could have been deployed for more developmental purposes.
“If elections are generally acceptable as free, fair and credible; there would be no need for these numbers of cases. This calls for INEC to be more responsible in the discharge of its constitutional mandate,” Oye submitted.
But the National Publicity Secretary of the All Progressives Congress, Felix Morka, argued that there was nothing ‘extraordinary’ in INEC’s plan to defend itself against the plethora of election petitions and other lawsuits slammed against it.
While shying from commenting on the budget involved, Morka maintained that it was within the right of INEC to defend the conduct and outcome of the elections.
He said, “I don’t know anything about their finances or budget for the election petition litigation. But what I can say is that INEC is the electoral umpire, the agency charged with the duty to conduct elections for Nigeria. That duty extends to litigating or defending any lawsuit arising from that election.
“It is their legal responsibility to respond to or defend any petition brought against it in the conduct of the election. The law prescribes INEC functions and gives the commission powers that it would exercise, even in this instance.
“I don’t see anything extraordinary about INEC electing to defend the election or bring forth its response to the petitions that parties have brought. That is what we expect and we think INEC is well within its authority to respond to those lawsuits by candidates or parties.”
The National Chairman of the Labour Party, Julius Abure, however, disagreed with the APC’s position on the issue.
Abure stated that his party and candidates were not intimidated by INEC’s N3bn war chest, which he alleged would eventually end up in private pockets.
According to him, the party’s presidential candidate, Peter Obi, and all their supporters are optimistic that the judiciary would do the right thing.
He also vowed that LP would pursue its cause for justice to the Supreme Court to reclaim its mandate.
He stated, “We are all Nigerians and we saw what played out in the last elections. For us, we are determined to pursue the course up to the Supreme Court.
“Even though a lot of people don’t have confidence in the judiciary, I believe once in a while the judiciary can still do the right thing. But we will give them the benefit of the doubt.
“We are very hopeful and we are sure that if there is a time the judiciary would do the right thing, it has to be from this case. This is because what transpired in the last elections is indeed a rape of democracy.’’
Continuing, Abure noted, “All the gains of the evolution of democracy since 2015 when the then president Goodluck Jonathan conceded, all the amendments we have made to the Electoral Act and other achievements in the electoral process have been eroded and the country took back to the 2007 era.
“This is a period where elections are openly rigged and security operatives won’t do anything, a situation where ballot boxes are snatched, voters are suppressed and where hate speech reigns. It is ridiculous to witness all these in the 21st century.”
The LP chair reiterated that it was bad enough that the electoral umpire has several bad cases hence his belief that no amount of budget can stop Obi from reclaiming his mandate.
He said, “If INEC had done the right thing, APC and PDP would have been a thing of the past by now. We are not intimidated by whatever money they are planning to use. But of course, we know they won’t spend the N3b on litigation.
“That money will find its way into people’s pockets. We know the lawyers in INEC take their salaries from the Federal Government. Any legal process that the commission is filing is always free. So where do they plan to spend the N3b? It is another way to steal money. That is the truth of the matter.
“What INEC has on its hands now are bad cases. No matter the grammar or what they write, it would amount to nothing. It is obvious on election days that the BVAS didn’t work that day. Were we able to transmit the election results from polling units? How exactly are they going to justify the report that their server shut down amid rigging in court?”
However, Rotimi Jacobs, SAN, expressed concern that INEC’s budget may not be enough to settle its legal fees because the commission was a party to all the election petitions filed by the candidates and their parties across the country.
He said, “You know we have the best Electoral Act, but we didn’t change our attitude. So that’s why you see every contestant will challenge the election. And where everybody challenges the election, INEC must be a party.
“So I wonder whether that amount will even be able to defend all the election petitions that will be filed all over the country. If they truly want to pay lawyers, I don’t know how that fund will be able to take care of litigation, witnesses, and other logistics.”
Another senior lawyer, Afam Osigwe, on his part, stated that INEC was bound by law to defend its conducted elections, adding that the sufficiency or otherwise of the budgeted funds could not be debated.
“What I’m saying is that INEC is by law to defend elections conducted by it. And in doing that, they will foot the expense of filing processes, foot travel expenses of their staff, and then the professional fees of private legal practitioners who may be engaged to defend them in those matters.
“So, I will not be able to comment on the sufficiency or otherwise of the amount or to suggest that the amount is too much or too small. It may well not be enough, or they may well not utilise all of it. But court matters entail a lot of costs.”