Navigating Disinformation Surrounding Nigeria's 2023 Presidential Election Tribunal

31 August 2023
31 August 2023

Nigerians have often taken to the judiciary in response to grievances from an improving, but ultimately compromised electoral process. In an acknowledgment of the outsized role it plays in Nigeria’s democracy, the judiciary is also affected by targeted information disorder campaigns.  In the lead up to the 2023 Presidential Election Tribunal (PET), a viral news report alleged that Chief Justice Olukayode Ariwoola had been sighted in London, disguised as a physically challenged elderly man, confined to a wheelchair after departing Nigeria on 11 March 2023. The report, which was echoed by various social media posts, claimed that the purpose of the trip was to meet with Bola Tinubu in connection with the presidential election petitions. 

The Nigerian Supreme Court eventually dispelled the speculation by clarifying that the CJN’s trip to London was solely for health reasons, yet Tinubu’s team needed to respond by issuing a statement to clarify that he was still in France where he was taking a break after the presidential election. This response, however, did not convince most people peddling false information. Nigerians’ utmost distrust in their institutions is well known. In 2021, a study found that 71% of Nigerians do not trust the judiciary. 

Most incidents of information disorder focus on politicians and politics. However, due to the growing significance of the judiciary, there is a need to review and analyse fake news related to the election tribunal. This review will aid in understanding how Nigerians might react to the court's decision when it is announced.

Disinformation and the Presidential Election Tribunal 

Several claims regarding the PET have gained traction online, sparking concerns about the credibility of the proceedings and the likely outcome. Some of the prominent instances of viral disinformation that have marked this process include:

Tinubu’s alleged suspension of all courts in Nigeria over fear of disqualification: In July, a news report  went viral on Facebook, claiming that Tinubu had taken an unprecedented step to suspend all courts across the country. The purported reason behind this move was his alleged fear of being sacked from the presidency. However, a verification process conducted by the CDD War Room revealed that there was no verifiable basis to the claim of a sweeping court suspension in the country. The investigation proved this was wrong but the level of attention it received demonstrated the extent of what people were willing to engage with. 

Justice H.S Tsammani’s alleged call for prayer over pressure to subvert justice: Another viral report on WhatsApp claimed that Justice Tsammani, the presiding judge, called for prayers due to alleged pressures to subvert justice in the PET case. However, the CDD War Room investigated the claim and found no credible evidence that the justice made such a statement.

Alleged resignation of a member of the presidential election petition panel: A news blog, Igbo Times Magazine, reported that a member of the 2023 presidential election petition panel, Justice Boloukuoromo Ugo, resigned from the bench due to pressure to favour Tinubu. The report was widely circulated on social media with the headline, “Justice Ugo Resigns, Citing Demands to ‘Kneecap’ Democracy, says ‘Siding with Tinubu’ Would Mean ‘The Death of Nigeria’s Democracy.” However, Josephine Ekperobe, the secretary of the PEPC, and Bukola Gafar, head of media and personal assistant to the President of the Appeal Court, debunked the viral report as they confirmed that there was no such resignation. 

Justice Ariwoola and Tinubu’s alleged secret phone conversation: After Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi submitted their final written addresses at the election tribunal, a news report emerged online alleging that Chief Justice Olukayode Ariwoola had a secret phone conversation with Tinubu regarding the outcome of the presidential election petition case. However, both the Supreme Court and Tinubu’s All Progressives Congress (APC) denounced the claim in separate statements made available to the media.

Babatunde Fashola’s alleged collaboration with APC lawyers to write judgments for the PEPC: A tweet from a verified Twitter user claimed that Babatunde Fashola, former Works and Housing minister, along with some APC lawyers, was drafting a judgement for the judges of the 2023 PEPC to adopt. The tweet also implied that the judges were promised Supreme Court elevation beyond monetary compensation. However, Fashola debunked the allegations, stating that he had been away from Abuja for an extended period of time, and urged security agents to take action against the peddlers of the false information. Subsequently, Fashola lodged a petition with the Inspector General of Police in response to the allegation, a claim that had also been disseminated by a news blog, ReporteraNG.

The Intersection of Disinformation and Public Perception of Litigation Outcome

The widespread disinformation revolving around the presidential election tribunal holds particularly significant implications on public perceptions of its eventual outcome. The majority of the disinformation assessed, revolves around Bola Tinubu, whose emergence as Nigeria’s president is currently under legal scrutiny. It also concerns Olukayode Ariwoola, the Chief Justice of the Federation, and Haruna Simon Tsammani, who presides over the tribunal. These prominent figures are central to the narratives which are capable of influencing public sentiments regarding the integrity of the court proceedings and the ultimate acceptability of the litigation's final verdict.

Consequently, the impact of disinformation stretches far beyond mere headlines. It resonates across the entire legal process, casting shadows over the integrity of the court’s final decision. As these narratives gain traction, they hold the potential to erode public trust in the court’s credibility, sowing the seeds of scepticism about the extent to which external pressures and influences could sway the course of justice. 

The impact of disinformation on the judicial process project disconcerting aftermaths. If the court’s final verdict favours the respondents, particularly Bola Tinubu, it could spark a wave of outright rejection from the petitioners and their supporters. This was evident in the alarming threat made by extremist supporters of Peter Obi, who have explicitly threatened reprisals against Justice Tsammani’s family should the judgement not align with their desires.

Ultimately, this adds to a wider conversation concerning how misinformation is being weaponised by different groups for their agendas. Regardless of the court’s final ruling, the legacy of fake news in this election cycle is likely to reverberate for years to come and set precedence for future campaigns. Hopefully, fact-checkers are also prepared for the added responsibility of contributing to preserving Nigeria’s democracy.

Raji Olatunji is a fact-checker at the Centre for Democracy and Development

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