Section 285 Of The 1999 Constitution: Time Frame Within Which To Commence And Conclude Pre-Election & Election Matters Ought To Be Computed In Line With The Provision Of The Interpretation Act
The 2018 Fourth Alteration of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (As Amended) stirred a lot of dust in the political milestone of Nigeria with numerous mix reactions depending on your chosen coin side.
Among the most disruptive innovation ushered in by the aforesaid alteration are the provisions of the law embedded in Section 285(1 – 14) of Part III of the 1999 Constitution, which bother on practice and procedures in conducting pre-election and election matters at every round of our electoral process.
The summary of the provisions in Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution are to the effect of defining and delimiting the possible causes of actions in election and pre-election suits, creation, composition and quorum of Election Tribunals and the time frame within which to commence and conclude election and pre-election matters both at trial Courts/Tribunals and at Appeals.
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This article is centred on the computation of time within which to commence and conclude election and pre-elections matters both at the trial Courts/Tribunals and at Appeal.
The curiosity that gave birth to this piece is premised on the plethora of judicial reasoning handed out in fine judgments of trial Courts/Tribunals, Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court to the effect that the statutory periods within which to commence and end election and pre-election matters are straight-jacketed, computation of time include the day of the happening and ending of an event and does not admit of any exception or extension of time whatsoever.
This singular reasoning had and has continued to knock off numerous political cases instituted on strong factual and evidential premise, which the ordinary man on the street would term as knockouts based on legal and judicial technicalities.
After the enactment of the aforesaid Fourth Alteration of the 1999 Constitution, the Supreme Court had the opportunity to pronounce on the issue on computation of time in election and pre-election matters and set a precedent thereto in the case of Bello Vs. Yusuf (2019) 15 NWLR (Pt. 1695) 250 @ 280, paras. F – G, where it was held that;
“In the computation of time in an electoral action, including pre-election matters, in the light of the Constitutional alteration referred to as 4th Alteration and as highlighted under Section 141 of the Electoral Act, the computation includes the very date on which the results were declared.”
The above position of the Apex Court clearly indicates that it is only in election and pre-election matters that the date of the occurrence of an event is added in the computation of time for the purpose of ascertaining compliance with stipulated time frame or otherwise. The basis for this exception is widely echoed on the fact that election and pre-election matters are sui generies in nature, connoting that such cases are unique, peculiar and in a class of their own! This position was well captured in the case of Poatson Graphics Arts Vs. NDIC (2019) 7 NWLR (Pt. 1672) 447 @ 465, paras. A – B, where it was held thus:
“It is only in election matter, which are sui generis and to which the provisions of the Interpretation Act have been held not to apply that the day of happening of the event is included in the computation of time.”
Ordinarily, one would expect that the Interpretation Act should generally guide the computation of time in any judicial proceedings, especially when Section 15(1 – 5) of the Act expressly provides for timing vis-à-vis its application and/or implication in doing something or taking a step.
Admitted that judicial authorities abound to the effect that in the computation of time to commence and end any step in election and pre-election suits, the applicable sub-sections of Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution had been interpreted to include the day of the happening and ending of the event contrary to the provision of Section 15(2)(a) of the Interpretation Act, which provides an exclusion of the day of the event in the computation.
Another salient point is Section 15(2)(b) & 15(5) of the Interpretation Act, which mentioned the word ‘HOLIDAY’, to the effect that holiday means Sunday or a public holiday. The consequence of this point is that in the ordinary computation of time to do something or take an action in judicial proceedings, Sundays and any other publicly declared holidays are excluded in the computation of days but in election and pre-election cases, our judex have held repeatedly held that there is no such exclusion of Sundays and/or public holidays.
Therefore, where Section 285(5) of the 1999 Constitution prescribed 21 days after the date of declaration of results, within which to file an election petition, it must be 21 days and not thereafter, even if the 21st day (which is the last day) fell on a Sunday or on a Public holiday, it is immaterial! It is either you file or you are shut out; and if you file after the prescribed time, it goes to the competence or otherwise of the petition, and will be liable to be struck out.
In any case, the registries of election petition tribunals in Nigeria through the Secretaries and other support staff have been on top of their job in the sense that filing of processes in election matters are done round the clock from Monday to Sunday all in a bid to accommodate litigants within the stipulated time frame. Unfortunately, the opposite is the situation for pre-election matters where the usual registries of the Federal High Court and the High Court of the States or the Court of Appeal are used for filings, hence their doors are opened from Mondays – Fridays between the working hours of 8am – 4pm as regular civil servants.
However, it has never been heard that Judges sit on Saturdays, Sundays or on public holidays just because election and pre-election matters are sui generis and time bound by virtue of the express constitutional provisions in Section 285 of the 1999 Constitution.
The pertinent question therefore is, why include Sundays and public holidays in the computation of 180 days to hear and determine election petitions and pre-election matters in Nigeria and 60 days to hear and determine any appeal from an election tribunal or pre-election matters?
It would be recalled that towards the build-up of the 2023 general poll, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) released its timetable to guide the activities of political parties for the purpose of nominating their candidates via party primaries. According to the said timetable, the conduct of political parties’ primary elections was scheduled for 4th April, 2022 to 3rd June, 2022; submission of nomination forms for Presidential and National Assembly election was scheduled for 10th June, 2022 to 17th June, 2022; submission of nomination forms for Governorship and State Houses of Assembly was scheduled for 1st July, 2022 to 15th July, 2022 while publication of names of candidates for all the political parties began sometime in October, 2022 thereabout. It is worthy of note that at every stage of these events on the INEC timetable, there are multiple cause of actions that arose and aggrieved parties headed to different Courts within their jurisdictions and there time (180 days) started counting from the day they filed their suit. This is aside the 14 days period within which to file actions from the date of the occurrence of the event that led to the cause of action.
Worthy of note is the fact that different public holidays were declared by the Federal Government within April, 2022 when Political Parties’ primary elections commenced to 31st December, 2022 namely Easter Good Friday and Easter Monday public holidays on 15th & 18th April, 2022; Workers’ Day and Id El-Fitir public holidays on 2nd & 3rd of May, 2022; Democracy Day public holiday on 13th June, 2022; Id El-Kabir public holidays on 11th & 12th of July, 2022; Independence Day public holiday on 3rd October, 2022; Id El-Maulud public holiday on 10th October, 2022 and Christmas public holidays on 26th & 27th December, 2022. These are eleven (11) whopping days that fell within ‘unproductive’ weekdays that crept into and wasted the 180 or 60 days period within which a litigant’s election/pre-election or appeal must be decided upon.
Furthermore, deducting a whooping twenty-four (24) days or eight (8) days of Sundays from a litigant’s 180 days or 60 days respectively goes a long way in affecting a number of activities that could be lawfully achieved in the process of determining an election/pre-election matter and their appeals.
The injustice and unfairness on litigants are further exposed when it cannot be a subject of dispute that litigants are at fault that a total of thirty-five (35) or nineteen (19) solid days (as the case may be) are wasted in his/her time frame to get judgment from a Court or Tribunal.
Obviously, these public holidays can best be referred to as intervening events or force majure that ought to be excused and excluded with no effect whatsoever in the computation of timing for a litigant in a pre-election or election matter.
The writer posit his candid opinion to the effect that it is only logical that the computation of the 180 or 60 days for the hearing and determination of election and pre-election matters and their appeals should only consist of Mondays to Saturdays to the exclusion of Sundays and public holidays as expressly provided in Section 15 of the Interpretation Act.
Without necessarily passing through the process of Constitutional Amendments, these changes can be effectively pronounced upon via deviating decisions of the Apex Court of the land and it automatically becomes the law and shall be followed as the new judicial precedence on the issue.
Abdulhameed M. Aliyu Esq.
An Abuja Based Legal Practitioner