“I really give the military and the police the orders to be ruthless. Anybody who thinks he has enough influence in his locality to lead a body of thugs to snatch boxes or to disturb the voting system, he would do it at the expense of his own life.”- President Mohammadu Buhari, February 2019.

The above statement was made by the president of Nigeria, Retired General Mohammadu Buhari few days to Nigeria’s 2019 presidential election during a meeting he had with the party chieftains of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) which was televised on local television stations within the country. The president whose current tenure expires on 29th May 2019 is seeking a re-election for another four year tenure.

As sincere as the above statement may sound, it is laced with utter contempt for the system of rule of law in Nigeria. It is laced with absolute disdain for the sanctity of lives of the people of Nigeria. The system of rule of law says that the law of the land is supreme, nobody is above the law and in the case of any infraction of the law by anybody, such a person will be dealt with according to the laws of the land. For the offence of ballot snatching, Section 118, sub-section 1, paragraph j of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) provides as follows:

“A person who without authority destroys or in any other manner interferes with a ballot box or its contents or any ballot paper or result form then in use or likely to be used for the purpose of an election is liable on conviction to a maximum term of imprisonment for 2 years.”

Also Section 129, sub-section 4 of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended) also provides:

“Any person who snatches or destroys any election material commits
an offence and is liable on conviction to 24 months imprisonment.”

From the above provisions of the Electoral Act, the offences of ballot-box snatching in all its ramifications have been created, the manner and procedure for punishment of offenders thereof and the attendant punishments have all been established hence the statement of General Buhari is inconsistent and at variance with the position of the law.

In the past, Nigeria’s elections including the last presidential election that brought General Buhari to power have all witnessed to a certain degree, the subversion of the electoral will of the Nigerian people through ballot-box snatching among other electoral crimes. Ballot box snatching is done by the politicians and their thugs and in some extreme cases, in concert with law enforcement agents. Despite the widely reported cases of ballot box snatching that occurred during the last presidential election in 2015, not one person was jailed for that crime.

As much as the president’s statement may have been made with good intentions, it is important that its implications are brought to the fore. As the popular saying goes, “the way to hell is paved with good intentions”, a president in a democratic setting like ours cannot in one statement suspend the laws of the land and usurp the responsibilities of the third arm of government in deciding who is guilty or not. Those ‘unpresidential’ statements of the president belong to Nigeria’s past. It has no place in a democratic setting. Thankfully, the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has reminded the president of that in recently emphasizing the true position of the law that electoral offenders shall be punished only in accordance with the Electoral Act.

No matter the defences manufactured by the President’s media team to justify the President’s statement, the President should be reminded that he was sworn on the Koran on the 29th May 2015 to uphold the laws of Nigeria of which the Electoral Act is one of them. He should understand that Nigeria is not his fiefdom where his words are laws. Nigeria is a country governed by laws. If therefore he desires a more severe punishment for ballot box snatchers, he should send an executive bill to the National Assembly for amendment of the Electoral Act and thereby provide stricter punishments for ballot box snatchers rather than making pronouncements over the issue and directing the military and the police on national television to shoot at sight anybody that commits ballot-box snatching.

The Nigerian military and the Nigeria police force are also reminded that despite the illegal order given by their commander-in-chief, their ultimate allegiance is to the laws of Nigeria and to the people of Nigeria, hence any order directly against the laws of Nigeria should be disregarded especially orders supporting extra-judicial killings.

By Lawrence C. Nnoli, a lawyer based in Lagos, Nigeria

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