By Gbemiga Ogunleye
Our people say at the death of an elephant, various types of knives are brandished. Such has been the case as the country waits with bated breath to know his new President. Not a few people have gone to town with their own interpretation of Section 134 (1) (b) of the 1999 Constitution as amended.
For ease of reference, I quote the section: “A candidate for an election to the office of President shall be deemed to have been duly elected, where, there being only two candidates for the election, he has the majority of votes cast at the election; and he has not less than one-quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two-thirds of all the States of the Federation and the Federal Capital Territory.”
In an interview with the Arise News Channel, Mike Igini, former President of the University of Benin Students Union, who served creditably as the Resident Electoral Commissioner for Akwa Ibom State, has given his own interpretation of the Section. According to him, for a candidate to be declared winner of the Presidential election, he must score 25% of the votes cast in Abuja.
He argued pompously: “Apart from having 25 % in 24 states of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Federal Capital Territory is like a compulsory question…without 25% in the Federal Capital Territory, you go nowhere.”
With due respect to Igini, his position is misconceived. A cardinal rule of the interpretation of statute is that, laws must be given their ordinary meaning.
The main purpose of the constitutional provision quoted above, is to ensure that the President sees the entire country as his constituency.
The Constitution envisages a President that is at home in majority of the states.
The Federal Capital Territory can be described as the 37th State. So, once a candidate has the plurality of votes and 25% of the votes in 25 states, he has fulfilled the requirements of the Constitution to be declared as President.
The makers of the Constitution certainly wouldn’t say that a candidate who has majority votes and 25% of the votes in 25 states the country has not fulfilled the constitutional requirement, simply because he didn’t score 25 % of the votes in Abuja. That interpretation, in my view, would be absurd.
That cannot be in the contemplation of the lawmakers who wrote the Constitution. It doesn’t accord with commonsense. To insist that a candidate must score 25% of the votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory, is to give a perverse interpretation of the Constitution.
Kayode Eso, a late jurist of the Supreme Court weighed in on this issue, in the celebrated case of GARBA V. UNIVERSITY OF MAIDUGURI, (1 NWLR 50 at 597) when he said: “It would be safer for the courts in this country to err on the side of liberalism, whenever it comes to the interpretation of the fundamental provisions of the Constitution than to import some restrictive interpretation.”
Another judge of the Supreme Court, the late Justice Andrew Obaseki agreed with his learned brother, Eso in the famous case of AWOLOWO V. SHAGARI & ORS (1979), 6-9 SC, 51, when he said: “The duty of the court is to interprete an Act of Parliament so as to give effect to its intention.”
I have earlier stated the intention of the Parliament as being to have a President who has the whole country as his constituency, not a regional leader.
As if to clear all doubts, Section 299 of the Constitution, is the joker in my view. The Section provides that: “THE PROVISIONS OF THIS CONSTITUTION SHALL APPLY TO THE FEDERAL CAPITAL TERRITORY, ABUJA AS IF IT WERE ONE OF THE STATES OF THE FEDERATION …”
By this express provision, a candidate who has the plurality of votes and 25% of the votes cast in 25 states shall be duly elected as the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
Mr Ogunleye a lawyer, is a former Director of Nigerian Institute of Journalism(NIJ), and a former Editor, Punch Newspapers
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