That advice from a CJN, By Mahmud Jega

It was mid-1992. I was a young reporter at Citizen magazine in Kaduna, and I accompanied a friend to the house of Justice Dahiru Musdapher, across the road from Murtala Square. A former Chief Judge of Kano State, he was then of the Court of Appeal, Kaduna Division. He later rose to become Chief Justice of Nigeria.

It was a Sunday morning, and we found His Lordship sitting alone in his living room, apparently feeling lonely. My friend soon disappeared into the house to greet family members, to whom he was very close, and he left me alone with the judge. We soon got talking. Justice Musdapher had just chaired the Election Appeals Tribunal for Edo State, which reversed the Election Tribunal’s ruling that upheld NRC candidate Lucky Igbinedion’s petition. The Appeals Tribunal upheld the election of SDP’s Governor John Odigie-Oyegun.

I probably wouldn’t do that now but being young and adventurous at the time, I brought up the election matter with him. I said the talk in town was that military ruler General Babangida had instructed that no governorship election should be cancelled in order to maintain the peace, that was why he upheld Oyegun’s election despite overwhelming evidence of interference by the [late] Oba of Benin, through the Isekhure of Benin, Nosakhare Isekhure. Days before the governorship election in December 1991, Isekhure, the chief priest of the Oba’s palace, announced that Oba Erediauwa placed a curse on anyone who voted for Lucky because his father, Esama of Benin Chief Gabriel Igbinedion, was “an enemy of the Oba.”

I thought His Lordship would be angry at my suggestion, but he wasn’t. Instead, he said, “Mahmud, let me give you an advice. When you enter politics and contest for election…” I cut him short and said, “Sir, I will never be a politician or contest election.” [Some people will say I broke that vow this year, after 32 years].

Justice Musdapher however said, “Listen!” So I calmed down and listened. He continued, “Whenever you enter politics and contest election, make sure that when the result is declared, you are the one who is declared the winner. Let the other person go to court.”

He was saying, in effect, that it is not easy to reverse an election through the courts. I agree with him because, since the 1970s when I have been familiar with elections and election cases in Nigeria, the number of results reversed in courts is only a fraction of the number of results upheld. The fact that the electoral body must be joined as a defendant alongside the respondent is but one disability for the applicant.

Since 1992 when the judge spoke, election laws and guidelines have drastically changed in Nigeria. Our politicians have however remained the same. Majority of them go to the tribunals to contest election results even when there are frivolous reasons for doing so. There are however political, not legal, reasons why that is the case. There have also been many landmark election case judgments, some of which have resulted in eight states having off-season governorship elections. Yet, the judge’s observation that one should better be a respondent than an applicant in an election suit still holds true after three decades.

Justice Dahiru Musdapher, may Allah grant him eternal rest in Aljannat, told me another interesting story that day about what happened when he went to Benin to hear the election appeal. But that is a story for another day.