Justice Muhammed Uwais, retired Chief Justice of Nigeria, CJN, and the chairman, Electoral Reform Committee spoke to SUNNY IDACHABA on the work of the committee, so far
The Federal government appointed you as the chairman of the Electoral Reforms Committee, ERC. How has it been since you took up this appointment?
I was not the only one appointed by the Federal Government as we were 21 altogether. However, my assignment as the chairman of the committee is probably what has made me conspicuous among my colleagues but the job has been very challenging in the sense that it was an assignment that would usher the country into a phase of electoral transparency in the future. You could recall that in almost every elections held in this country for some time now, there have always been complains before and after the elections, all because of the lapses in the Electoral Acts. This was what the government saw behind the necessity of this committee. When the Federal Government set up this committee last year August, one of the things we did after our inauguration was to divide ourselves into sub-committees in order to work faster since the assignment covers the whole six geo-political areas that make up the country. Therefore we divided ourselves into groups for the purpose of meeting. And because we cannot be in all the geo-political parts of the country at the same time, we decided that one group would meet from Monday to Wednesday while another group would meet from Wednesday to Friday. That gave me the time to do my supervisory role on the works of the committee however; this was after we advertised for memoranda from the public. Over 200 memoranda were submitted for this assignment. Another thing we did was that we sampled only two states from each of the geopolitical units of the country. This is because we would not be able to reach all the states in the country for our sittings. It was those selected states representing the whole region we visited during our sittings.
What are likely to be the content and findings of your committee?
If I tell you that I have an idea of the final outcome of the report now, I would be lying because it is still going through a process of compilation and of course I cannot tell you what it is likely to be as it would mean preempting the report. The members of the committee have to take a final look at the report whenever it is ready after which it would be submitted to the president. If I tell you what the final outcome is likely to be, then it has ceased to be a report. I will only advise you to wait till December when it would be submitted to the government.
As you were moving round the whole country for this assignment, and from the memoranda submitted to you, obviously you would have read the mood of Nigerians towards the necessity of electoral reforms. How can you describe this mood?
From what we saw, Nigerians are very enthusiastic for a change in the electoral system. Remember that previous elections held in this country have never been devoid of complains. These form part of the memoranda they submitted to our committee. Many people submitted memoranda based on their resentment to the existing laws governing elections in Nigeria. It was their memoranda that we worked on and if I am to give you an idea of what the final outcome of the report would be, I can say it would be the people's opinion that would be submitted at the end of the day.
What were the defective areas in the existing electoral Acts that necessitated the setting up of your committee?
I hope you are not indirectly asking me to tell you what would be in our report? Anyway, it has been observed from the times past that there was something wrong with the funding of the electoral system, a situation that has generated serious contention in the political system. There is also the problem of thuggery in the political system which does not give room for healthy political interaction among the people. People also bore their mind on the number of political parties that should be allowed to exist in the country. While some said two, others said a maximum of five and a minimum of two. These were their opinions but remember that even if you are restricting the number to only two, you have to put into consideration the international convention of free association that Nigeria subscribes to so that you do not impinge on international law. There are certainly so many defective areas in the existing electoral system which would be corrected by the time the report is out.
As a judge, you must have ruled on so many areas that would probably be contrary to the recommendations of your committee, how would you reconcile these?
As a judge, your ruling on any matter is based on the evidences presented before you by the parties per time. In most cases, you don't pass any judgment without first looking at all the sides of the evidences and witnesses at your disposal. If these are exhausted then you can deliver your judgment. Now, if there was any judgment delivered in times past that would be contrary to any of the recommendations in the ERC's report, it is because of the necessity of that judgment then as distinct from what is the overwhelming need on ground today; but certainly there is no contradiction as far as the application of the law is concerned.
Nigerians have had series of recommendations in the past that were never implemented. To what extent do you think that the report of your committee would be implemented?
To the extent that Nigeria needs peace. As far as sanity is needed in the society, these recommendations would certainly have to be implemented. The minister of Justice has assured me about the desire of the president to leave a legacy behind on the electoral system being practiced by the country at the moment; therefore I don't have any doubt about the willingness of the government to implement these recommendations when eventually it becomes public. It may be subjected to further legislative screening, no doubt, but certainly not to be dumped as everyone is aware of the need to solve election-related issues once and for all.