Interpretation of statutes is very essential to the administration of justice. Whereas the legislature has the duty to make laws, the judiciary has the duty to interpret laws. The power of the judiciary to interpret laws is given by Section 6 of the 1999 Nigerian constitution. In exercise of such duty, the courts are to ensure that they interpret the law in such a manner as not to defeat the intention of the Legislators. Accordingly, Atanda Fatayi Williams C.J.N reiterated in the Nigerian case of Awolowo v Shagari that “In most countries with common Law jurisdictions such as Nigeria, it is generally accepted that it is the function of the judiciary to interpret the law with the minimum direction of the legislature as to how they should go about this task. Thus, nearly all the principles and maxims of statutory interpretation are judge made.”
The problem of interpretation of statute is a continuous one because laws are made often to meet the changing reality of the nation. This problem of interpretation has once more come into public domain with the recent Electoral Act of 2022 and the conduct of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) during the 2023 general elections. The inclusion of section 60, 64 of the Electoral Act 2022 and Paragraph 38 of the Regulations and Guidelines, 2023 has caused a lot of debates as to whether or not the legislation and its subsidiary places an obligation on INEC to transmit results electronically or otherwise. These arguments remain academic for the most part, because the court is yet to make a pronouncement on the Act. This article aims to examine the most probable interpretation the court is likely to give to the conflicting sections and the most probable effect on the just concluded elections.
Now, there are three major rules of interpretation that guide the court when interpreting any conflicting section of a law, constitution or act.
The first rule of interpretation is the Literal rule. The literal rule of interpretation is indeed one of the first rules of interpretation of statutes which states that words must be given their ordinary, plain, and natural meaning.
Section 64 provides; that a collation officer or returning officer at an election shall collate and announce the result of an election, subject to his or her verification and confirmation that the— a. Number of accredited voters stated on the collated results are correct and consistent with the number of accredited voters recorded and transmitted directly from polling units under section 47(2) of this Act;
b. The votes stated on the collated results are correct and consistent with the votes or results recorded and transmitted directly from the polling units under section 60(4) of this Act
In addition, Section 60(5) of the Electoral Act 2022 provides that “The presiding officer shall transfer the results including total number of accredited voters and the results of the ballot in a manner prescribed by the Commission”. The use of “shall ” has been severally interpreted by the court to indicate a mandatory duty on the object of the statute. In the case of, General Muhammadu Buhari v Independent National Electoral Commission it was held thus;
“When the word “shall” is used in a statute it connotes the intendment of the legislator that what is contained therein must be done or complied with. It does not give room for maneuver of some sort, or evasiveness. Whatever the provision requires to be done must be done, and it is not at all negotiable…” Also in the case of Tabik investment Ltd V GTB Plc the word ‘shall’ was said to connote mandatory discharge of a duty or obligation, and when the word in respect of a provision of the law that requirement must be met.”
From the above, it can be implied that the presiding officer must transmit the results as prescribed by the INEC Guidelines. On June 3, 2022, INEC released the Regulations and Guidelines for the Conduct of Elections, 2022. The Regulations and Guidelines were issued pursuant to Section 148 of the Electoral Act, 2022 and the Regulations and Guidelines supersede all previous regulations and/or guidelines on the conduct of elections, issued by the INEC.
Moreso, Paragraph 38 of the Regulations and Guidelines, 2023 makes Electronic Transmission of Results and Upload of Results to IReV mandatory. The paragraph requires that when voting and announcement of results have been completed at a polling unit, the Presiding Officer “(1) must Electronically transmit the result of the polling unit to INEC’s collation system; (2) Must use the BVAs to upload a scanned copy of the EC8A result sheet to the INEC Result Viewing Portal (IReV); and (3) [must thereafter] Take the BVAS and the original copies of all forms in a tamper evident envelope to the RA/Ward Collation officer in the company of security agents. Polling Agents may accompany the PO to the RA/Ward Collation Centre”
In light of the above, the rule as laid down in section 60, 64 and Paragraph 38 of the Regulations and Guidelines, 2023 is best interpreted to mean that INEC is mandated to transmit results directly from polling units. Section 64(4) and 60(4) already revealed an intention of the legislature to mandate INEC to transmit results electronically with the inclusion of the word “shall”. The provision of section 60(5) seems a bit contradictory though, because it gives INEC the power to choose by itself, the best means of transmitting the result. INEC used the power granted by section 148 to make a subsidiary legislation mandating the transmission of results electronically.
The second rule of interpretation is referred to as the Golden rule. The Golden rule of interpretation allows for departure from the literal rule when the application of the statutory words in its ordinary state would be repugnant to or inconsistent with some other provisions in the statute or could lead to absurdity.
Regarding the electronic transmission of results, interpretation based on the Golden rule would be a bit absurd in this case because the literal rule seems straightforward enough if the principles of interpretation of words and statutes as applied in a plethora of cases is upheld by the court.
The third rule of interpretation is the Mischief rule. The mischief rule is a rule of interpretation which requires the judge to consider some historical facts and background information pertaining to the making of a statute in order to discover the intention of the legislature in making that statute.
Without doubt, it is safe to conclude that the main aim of the 2022 act is to ensure that the 2023 election is free and fair to all. It is not in contention that the election held in 2019 has been one of the worst elections in Nigeria, and the President aims to change the narrative before his tenure is over. This desire inspired him to sign the Electoral act with the hope that there would be changes in the electoral procedure.
The inclusion of BVAS and the above mentioned sections lends more credence to that fact. Also, the exorbitant amount spent on the election, the grand planning towards the election and the constant reassurance by the INEC chairman are all indicators of this intention by the legislators and the electoral body as well. Therefore, interpretation based on the mischief rule would tilt more to the side that the act mandated INEC to transmit electronically in order for the election to be transparent and be free and fair.
Further to the above, it is imperative to note that the court is likely to put into consideration the implication of its interpretation of the relevant sections on the election. If the Supreme court interprets the section to mandate INEC to transmit results directly from the polling units, then the whole election would be canceled. On the other hand, if the court considers the huge funds and time put into the conduct of the elections, it would most likely avoid any interpretation likely to nullify the election. Nonetheless, for the sake of justice and subsequent elections, it is best for the Supreme court to give a judgment that reflects good justice and enables justice to be seen in the extant case.
In the final analysis, it is important to note that cases of interpretation are best decided through the lens of the judiciary being the appropriate body empowered to do the same. However, the judiciary in making these decisions is not to go on a frolic of its own or descend into the arena of lawmaking. The judiciary is expected to interpret the contentious sections and rules relating to electronic transmission of results, based on the highlighted canons of interpretation, a deterrent from such may amount to manifest injustice.
- Awolowo V Shagari (1979) LCN/2141(SC)
- Abubakar & Anor V. INEC & ors (2019)LCN/12799(CA)
- Muhammadu Buhari v Independent National Electoral Commission (2008) LPELR – 814 (SC)
- Best Njoku v. Chief Mike Iheanatu (2008)LCN/2886(CA)
- NNPC & ANOR v FAMFA OIL LIMITED (2012) LPELR-1812SC
- Electoral Act of 2022