Nigeria 2023: Tension as Buhari moves to appoint new election officers, judges 

By Eniola Akinkuotu
Posted on Monday, 26 September 2022 17:45

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari (photo twitter: @NigeriaGov)

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s move to appoint new election officers ahead of the presidential election in February is ruffling feathers in the opposition. With the Supreme Court now set for the appointment of new judges, it's likely that there will be fireworks in the coming weeks. How will this shape the 2023 polls? 

“Security operatives in the United Arab Emirates are keeping a close tab on a former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, who has been in the Middle East nation for several weeks now. What is he doing there? Me: shopping for terrorists,” Lauretta Onochie, President Buhari’s social media advisor, said on Twitter in June 2019. 

Angered by the tweet, Atiku, who was the presidential candidate of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) at the time, slammed a N2.5bn ($5.7m) libel suit against Onochie, but she remained undeterred. 

In another tweet after the Supreme Court dismissed Atiku’s application to overturn Buhari’s electoral victory, Onochie said: “When some Nigerians told me that God will disgrace Atiku, I did not know it [would] happen so soon at the election tribunal.” 

Onochie had earned a reputation of insulting anyone who criticised Buhari and was a staunch member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC). 

Many Nigerians therefore expressed shock when in 2021, Buhari nominated Onochie into one of the highest positions in the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and submitted her name to the Senate for confirmation. 

The furore was premised on the fact that Nigeria’s electoral law prohibits partisan people from taking up sensitive appointments in Nigeria’s electoral umpire. After several months of bickering and street protests, the Senate rejected Onochie’s controversial nomination. 

More controversial appointments 

However, barely nine months after Onochie’s controversial nomination and subsequent rejection, in July 2022, Buhari submitted the names of 19 nominees who would serve as Resident Electoral Commissioners (RECs) in the 2023 elections. RECs are the heads of INEC offices in each state and play a key role in elections.  

No sooner had Buhari made the nominations than the opposition and rights groups began to complain that at least four of the nominees were members of the APC and that one of them reportedly contested in the primaries for a governorship ticket of the ruling party.  

This unpatriotic act is a brazen plot by the APC to manipulate and rig the 2023 general elections against the will of Nigerians.

Pro-transparency group, Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP), which has sued the Nigerian government over 50 times, threatened to institute yet another action in court if Buhari did not withdraw the controversial nomination before the end of September. 

“Withdrawing the names of those nominees who are allegedly members of the APC and replacing them with people of unquestionable integrity and competence, and who are not members of any political party would improve the independence of INEC and promote public confidence in the appointment process,” SERAP said. 

All the major election monitoring groups in the country also signed a joint statement calling on Buhari to withdraw the nominations in order to save the country’s democracy and preserve the sanctity of the elections. 

Speaking on behalf of the groups, Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, who also doubles as the head of Transparency International’s local chapter, called on Buhari to consider for “immediate replacements, persons of integrity and unquestionable character, to demonstrate non-partisanship in the selections and nominations”. 

Several Nigerian newspapers have also written editorials condemning the controversial appointments and calling on the president to ensure that the 2023 elections are free and fair. 

The PDP said it was clear that Buhari had plans to manipulate next year’s polls. “This unpatriotic act is a brazen plot by the APC to manipulate and rig the 2023 general elections against the will of Nigerians,” said the party. 

Despite this, the minister of information, Lai Mohammed, dismissed the protests and advised Nigerians to let the Senate do its work. He said allegations of partisanship were not enough to reject the nominations. “I think this ‘media trial’ is quite worrisome,” Mohammed said. 

Amid the furore, the Senate is expected to begin the screening this week, sources say.

Judges’ appointment 

Although the dust raised by the appointment of election officers has yet to settle, the president is set to appoint new Supreme Court judges in a country where the apex court often plays a more vital role than the electorate in the selection of elected officials. 

According to Nigeria’s constitution, the number of Supreme Court judges is supposed to be 21, but there are 13 at the moment, hence a deficit of eight. With the apex court expected to handle hundreds of election cases in the next few months, coupled with the fact that a panel of at least five judges will hear each case, there are now moves to appoint new judges. 

You can be sure that the main candidates are already lobbying to ensure that ‘friendly’ judges are appointed but the NJC has not yet prepared the final list

These judges will be drawn from the Court of Appeal and recommended to the president by the National Judicial Council (NJC) that is headed by the chief justice. 

A judge, who wished to remain anonymous because he was not permitted to speak to the media, tells The Africa Report that the politicking for the appointment had already begun. 

“Elections are approaching and you know politicians are always ready to throw money around. You can be sure that the main candidates are already lobbying to ensure that ‘friendly’ judges are appointed, but the NJC has not yet prepared the final list,” he said 

 2023 battle 

With the presidential election turning out to be a four-horse race and the stakes higher than ever, the battle will be expected to end at the Supreme Court level and not at the ballot box. The Africa Report notes that since 1999, only the 2015 presidential election was not challenged in court. Buhari went to court when he lost in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Atiku also challenged Buhari’s victory at the Supreme Court in 2019, but lost. 

Overall, at least 10 governors have been sacked by the courts while no presidential election result has ever been upturned. Even so, with the presidential poll expected to be keenly contested, the court would play a more critical role than ever.  

In the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, CJ Walter Onnoghen was controversially suspended and then tried and convicted for failing to declare his assets in line with the law, but he claimed it was all a ploy to get him out of the way. 

“There were rumours that I met with Atiku in Dubai. As I am talking here today, I have never met Atiku one on one in my life,” Onnoghen said. 

His removal was criticised by the US and other Western countries even as the opposition claimed Buhari’s ulterior motive was to install a chief justice that would work in his favour when the Presidential election is challenged in court. Atiku eventually lost at the Supreme Court. 

This time round, the appointment of Supreme Court judges could become a stormy issue in Nigeria’s parliament in the coming weeks. 

Additionally, the electoral officers that will supervise the polls would play a critical role in the credibility of the election. INEC is expected to employ over one million ad hoc officials and has created an application portal on its website. 

Although INEC said only non-partisan people would be given the jobs, several political parties have already begun reaching out to their supporters to apply for these jobs so they could manipulate the election from within. 

At the United Nations General Assembly, President Buhari promised to ensure that the February elections are free, fair and credible. 

We are watching events and as a party we will demand from the president that in the nomination, he must ensure that integrity and the intelligence and the capacity of those being appointed to the highest court are those who will protect the rule of law and the electoral processes.

Nevertheless, the main opposition says it will remain vigilant. In an interview with The Africa Report, the spokesperson for the main opposition PDP, Debo Ologunagba, says the party will do everything legally possible to ensure that APC members are not appointed as electoral officers. 

Ologunagba adds that the party expects the appointment of Supreme Court judges to be done in the most transparent manner  

“We remain opposed to the appointment of APC members into INEC and we will do everything legally possible to stop it. President Buhari must conduct an election that made it possible for him to defeat President Goodluck Jonathan in 2015,” he says. 

He also calls on INEC to ensure that the process of recruitment of ad hoc officials is in line with global best practices. 

On the planned appointment of judges, the PDP spokesperson says: “We are watching events and as a party we will demand from the president that in the nomination, he must ensure that integrity and the intelligence and the capacity of those being appointed to the highest court are those who will protect the rule of law and the electoral processes.” 

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