By Andy Chukwu
The Presidential Election Petition Tribunal sitting in Abuja, on Tuesday, said it would hear and determine petitions challenging President Muhammadu Buhari’s re-election, without fear or favour.
Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, the President of the Court of Appeal, and the Head of the five-man tribunal, in her speech at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal, said the tribunal would only subscribe to the dictates of the constitution, the electoral law and international best practices.
She assured that all the petitioners would be accorded equal opportunity to present their case, saying they should however do so in “a mature manner”.
Justice Bulkachuwa maintained that the judiciary, being the arbiter, should be allowed to enjoy its independence, with a view to ensuring the dispensation of in all the petitions challenging the outcome of the February 23 presidential election.
“The independence of the judiciary is key to any vibrant democracy, especially in the resolution of Election Petitions. Therefore, an independent judiciary is a robust and an indispensable requisite of a free society under the rule of law.
“As we gather in this honourable courtroom today, I wish to use this opportunity to reassure Nigerians and friends of Nigeria, that the Court of Appeal will work in accordance and within the dictates of the Constitution, the law and international best practices, to dispense justice to all, without fear or favor, affection or ill will,” she stated.
Justice Bulkachuwa also sought the cooperation of all the parties in the four separate petitions before the tribunal, even as she urged all the lawyers to conduct themselves with decorum and high sense of responsibility so as to help the court to do justice.
She further gagged lawyers representing all the parties from addressing the Press on issues that border on proceedings of the tribunal.
“This is not the first time this Court has been empowered to hear and determine the outcome of a Presidential election result since the return to democracy in Nigeria and the coming into law of the 1999 Constitution. We did same in 1999, 2003, 2007 and 2011.
“Whenever petitions are filed against an elected President, such a Tribunal is set up and it becomes a matter of public interest to the nation.
“The judiciary being the arbiter, there are litigants, Counsel, members of the Press, and the public who are all stakeholders as the major participants.
“We therefore require the maximum cooperation of all the stakeholders, especially from the leaders of the Bar. We expect the proceeding to be conducted with decorum, a high sense of responsibility, dedication, and patriotism in our quest to arrive at just decisions in all the petitions before us.
“We assure all stakeholders that each litigant will be given equal opportunity to present his case in a mature manner before us.
“We are witnesses to what has been happening in high profile cases where such cases are being discussed and publicly decided prematurely in both the social and electronic media before the announcement of the verdict by the Court.
“We pray that this time would be an exception for the benefit of the nation. We don’t expect counsel to any of the parties to hype the polity after any sitting by making a public analysis in the media as to what transpired in Court.
“These proceedings should be treated as would any other low-profile case, where proceedings in Court are not discussed publicly until a decision is pronounced by the Court.
“This admonition is also extended to the parties, their respective counsel and the members of the Press.
“We on our own part, will make relevant information available as at when due. Any breach will not be condoned and we will not hesitate in taking necessary action against such offenders”.
Bulkachuwa disclosed that Imo State has the highest number of election petition cases, with six different panels constituted to hear a total of 76 petitions that emanated from the state. She noted that in all the states where elections held, it was only in Jigawa State that no election petition was filed.
“So far, we have empaneled 78 panels to cover the Election Tribunals in all states of the Federation, excluding Jigawa State where no election petition had been filed.
“The panels are now in place and have started hearing the petitions. They are, presently, 786 petitions, with Imo State having the highest number of 76 petitions which necessitated the posting of six panels to the state.”
Other members of the panel that will hear and determine the four petitions challenging the outcome of the 2019 presidential election, are Justices Abdul Aboki, Samuel Oseji, Joseph Ikyegh and Peter Olabisi Ige.
The Tribunal said it would after the pre-hearing sessions, sit on a day-to-day basis.
Present at the inauguration were the Vice Presidential candidate of the PDP, Dr. Peter Obi, and former Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, EFCC, Nuhu Ribadu.
On the sidelines, a group of banner wielding women, stormed the court premises, chanting in solidarity to the PDP presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, who they claimed was robbed off his mandate.
After the inaugural session, all the Petitioners and the Respondents, took turns to identify all the processes they filed before the Tribunal.
The first petition marked CA/ PEPC/001/2019, which was lodged by the presidential candidate of the Hope Democratic Party (HDP), Chief Ambrose Owuru, was adjourned till May 14 following an application the petitioner filed to be allowed to correct some typographic errors in the petition. Owuru who secured a total of 1,663 in the presidential election, through his lawyer, Mr. Oliver Eya, pleaded to be permitted to effect the amendments.
However, all the Respondents, including President Buhari, said they would require time to oppose the request.
Similarly, all the Respondents, told the Tribunal that they separately filed preliminary objections for the second petition marked CA/PEPC/002/2019, which was filed by the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to be dismissed.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) which was cited as the 1st Respondent, through its lead counsel, Mr. Yunuz Uztaz, SAN, urged the Tribunal to strike out Atiku’s petition. INEC, told the panel that it had on April 23, filed a motion for Atiku’s case to be dismissed “for want of compliance with Paragraph 18 of the Third Schedule to the Electoral Act, 2010, as amended”.
“My lords, on April 24, we filed another innocuous motion to strike out some paragraphs of the petition.
“On May 5 we filed another motion to strike out the entire petition”, INEC which was represented by four Senior Advocates of Nigeria, added.
On his part, President Buhari who was represented by a team of five SANs led by Chief Wole Olanipekun, told the tribunal that he had on April 16, replied Atiku’s petition against his re-election. “Also incorporated in our reply to the petition were series of objections. In line with the rules, we pray that the objection be set-down for hearing”, Olanipekun submitted.
Likewise, the All Progressives Congress (APC) through its own team of five SANs led by Prince Lateef Fagbemi, said it had on April 11, filed its response to Atiku’s petition, and also adduced reasons why it should be dismissed.
Nevertheless, Atiku who was represented by a consortium of 12 SANs led by Dr. Livy Uzuokwu, told the panel that he had responded to issues the Respondents raised against the petition he lodged on March 18.
Based on consent of all the parties, the panel, fixed May 15 and 16 to hear all the pending applications within the pre-hearing session.
Meanwhile, lack of proper service, temporarily stalled proceeding in the two remaining petitions marked CA/PEPC/003/2019 and CA/PEPC/004/2019, which were filed by the Coalition For Change (C4C) and its presidential candidate, Geff Chizee Ojinka, as well as by the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM) Pastor Aminchi Habu.
The Tribunal said it could not take further step until the issue of service was regularized. The C4C and its candidate is contending that Buhari’s re-election was vitiated by substantial non compliance with mandatory statutory provisions.
The petitioners maintained that the irregularity substantially affected the election, “such that the 1st Respondent was not entitled to be returned as the Winner of the Presidential election”. Remarkably, unlike in all the other petitions where only Buhari, the APC and INEC were cited as Respondents, the C4C, which garnered a total of 2,391 votes at the presidential poll, cited the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, as the 2nd Respondent in its case.
On the other hand, PDM is seeking a fresh election on the basis that its party logo was not included in the presidential ballot paper.
It will be recalled that INEC had on February 27, declared that Buhari garnered a total of 15,191,847 votes to defeat his closest rival, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the opposition PDP, who it said polled a total of 11,262,978 votes.
Dissatisfied with the result, Atiku, vowed to upturn it in court. Specifically, in their joint petition, Atiku and his party, insisted that data they secured from INEC’s server, revealed that they clearly defeated President Buhari with over 1.6million votes.
The petitioners alleged that INEC had at various stages of the presidential election, unlawful allocated votes to President Buhari, saying they would adduce oral and documentary evidence to show that result of the election as announced by the electoral body, did not represent the lawful valid votes cast Atiku alleged that in some states, INEC, deducted lawful votes that accrued to him, in its bid to ensure that Buhari was returned back to office.
The petitioners said they would call evidence of statisticians, forensic examiners and finger-print experts at the hearing of the petition to establish that the scores credited to Buhari were not the product of actual votes validly cast at the polling units.
More so, in one of the five grounds of the petition, Atiku and the PDP maintained that Buhari was not qualified to run for the office of the President, contending that he does not possess the constitutional minimum qualification of a school certificate.
Aside asking the Tribunal to declare that he was duly and validly elected and ought to be returned as President of Nigeria, having polled the highest number of lawful votes cast at the presidential election, Atiku, in the alternative, urged the tribunal to nullify the February 23 presidential election and order a fresh poll.