The courts continue to play an essential role in efficient justice administration, the guarantee of fundamental rights and the sustenance of democracy. According to a 2021 report by Justice Tsoho, the Chief Judge of the Federal High Court is tasked with over 128, 000 cases each year, and this year, with the general elections around the corner, it is likely that the caseload will increase. In addition to election petition matters, other changes to the business, lifestyle and regulatory landscape indicate that there will be a rise in cases filed in certain sectors. Here are four areas where legal actions are likely to arise in 2023.
The 2023 Nigerian general elections are scheduled for February and it is expected that controversies will arise with regard to the electoral process and the outcomes of the elections. Election petitions are instituted for the purposes of challenging the validity of an election or disputing the due return of a candidate and are the only legal way to do so under Nigerian law. An election petition is usually presented by a candidate in an election or a political party that took part in the elections.
Election petitions are sui generis actions, which is to say that they are peculiar with legal procedures and processes that are different in character from normal civil proceedings. Election petitions entail a special proceeding guided by electoral law as encapsulated in the Constitution and the Electoral Act 2022.
The Electoral Act prescribes the court/tribunal where the petition shall be filed, the parties, grounds for presentation, and the conduct of the entire proceedings. Also, section 285 (1) of the Constitution states that there shall be established for the Federation one or more election tribunals, which shall to the exclusion of any tribunal, have original jurisdiction to hear and determine petitions relating to National Assembly elections. Thus, petitions arising from National Assembly elections are heard by designated tribunals. The Governorship and Legislative Houses Election Tribunals handle petitions arising from elections conducted in the states of the federation for governorship and houses of assembly. For presidential elections, however, the appropriate court to hear election petitions is the Court of Appeal.
Due to the peculiar features of election petitions and election matters, time is of extreme importance, and tardiness could be fatal to a claim. For one, election tribunals must be constituted at least 30 days before the election; and when constituted, pen their registries for business seven days before the election. A petition is presented when it is filed in the appropriate court or tribunal.
Election petitions are time-bound actions and must be brought within the time prescribed. An election petition must be brought within 21 days after the date of the declaration of the result of the election. An election tribunal shall deliver its judgement in writing within 180 days from the date of the filing of the petition.
According to a 2007 report by Justice Abdullahi Umaru, the former president of the court of appeal, about 1,527 petitions were lodged in respect of the general elections the highest in Nigeria’s history. Statistically then, seeing as this year’s elections are highly contested and pivotal to Nigeria’s history, results are likely to be challenged.
Landlord and tenant actions
Tenancy matters often arise out of tenancy agreements between landlords and tenants. Under a tenancy agreement, the landlord gives up possession and use of the property for valuable consideration called rent and for a certain term to a tenant. At the end of the term, the landlord has the absolute right to retake, control and use the property. A valid tenancy agreement includes the duration of the tenancy, the property details, the rent sum, the tenant’s right to exclusive possession and quiet enjoyment of the property for the stated term, and the landlord’s right to recover possession of the property after the expiration of the term.
Tenancies are fixed for one year usually, thus, tenancy agreements that were entered into in 2022 will expire this year, and while there will be renewals and delivering-up of possession after the expiration of the term, conflicts from the agreements may also arise. Research shows that the number of cases between landlords and tenants in Nigerian courts is overwhelmingly on the increase because many tenants are not paying rent due to the economic conditions and cost of living crisis in Nigeria. Tenancy matters will definitely make the cut for cases in Nigeria courts this year.
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Fundamental human rights and abuse of power cases
Incidences of human rights violations and abuse of power issues seem to be on the increase. There are reports of violations by security agencies including excessive and unnecessary use of force, arbitrary arrests and use of violence against persons. The shocking death of Omobolanle Raheem, a pregnant female lawyer shot to death in her vehicle on Christmas Day, by Assistant Superintendent of Police, Drambi Vandi on her way home after celebrating with family, is the most recent in a long line of reported illegal violations. According to a 2022 report by the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre (PLAC), the human rights situation in Nigeria worsened last year. The PLAC decried Nigeria’s drift away from its responsibilities as enshrined both its Constitution and the various international human rights treaties and documents.
However, since the EndSARS protest, people are becoming more aware and demanding of their rights and liberties under the law. The EndSARS movement saw a majority of Nigeria’s marginalised youth (who make up 35.6 per cent of the total population) participate in one of the largest demonstration movements since Nigeria’s democratic transition. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “the social movement was not only a rallying call for comprehensive police reform but also became a symbol of hope and change. According to the UNOCHA, the EndSARS protest showed young Nigerians from all six geo-political zones coming together for a united goal to end police intimidation, oppression and brutality. It also showed young Nigerians that it was possible to have an accountable and transparent civil society that responsive to the needs of its citizens. Also, with about half of the registered voters in Nigeria aged between 18-35, the movement highlighted the need for more young people to exercise their rights to speak out against injustices and to demand change from state leaders elected to serve the needs of the populace.
SERAP and other civil society groups brought actions against the Nigerian government in the past years and there is the possibility of more this year. For instance, on June 22, 2021, the Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) ordered the Nigerian authorities to refrain from imposing sanctions and prosecuting persons using Twitter in Nigeria, in an action brought by civil society groups challenging the Twitter ban, which was lifted in January 2022.
This is not all. Political participation and enforcement of political rights have also increased. Mahmood Yakubu, Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), stated that court cases challenging the validity of party primaries are on the increase as the INEC has so far been joined in about 600 cases relating to the conduct of recent primaries and nomination of candidates by political parties for the 2023 general elections.
People are becoming more aware of their rights and how to seek redress for violation of these rights. With these, we expect a lot of fundamental human rights actions from individuals, civil society groups, and non-governmental organisations like Amnesty International and SERAP.
An appeal is not a retrial of the case as the appellate court does not consider new evidence or witnesses. It is usually an assessment of the judgement of the lower court to ascertain the validity of the proceedings and judgement of the lower court. Appeals afford litigants who are not satisfied with judgments by trial courts rights to access a higher court.
The right to appeal is a vital right as people are able to fully exercise their rights to seek redress in court and fair hearing. Election petition cases, fundamental human rights cases, and other dispute resolution cases can be appealed in Nigeria’s Court of Appeal and Supreme Court. However, all final appeals end in the Supreme court. Because it is the right of every litigant to fully explore all mechanisms for seeking redress, some litigants who receive an unfavourable judgment exploit this to avoid obeying the judgment of the court, so the appellate courts are likely to have their hands full both necessary and unnecessary appeals.