Anxiety As Buhari, Atiku Await Tribunal’s Judgment

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President Muhammadu Buhari and PDP Presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar

Any moment from now, the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) sitting at the Court of Appeal Abuja, will deliver judgement on the petition challenging the declaration of President Muhammadu Buhari as winner of the February 23, 2019 general elections. Going by the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (Fourth Alteration, No. 21) Act, 2017, judgment in writing in election petitions is to be given within 180 days. Basically, the 180 days expires on Friday, September 13.

The Peoples Democratic Party and its standard bearer in the presidential poll, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar had dragged the All Progressives Congress, its candidate Buhari, and the Independent National Electoral Commission before the tribunal, wherein they claimed that the election was massively rigged in favour of Buhari.rubi

By the petition, Atiku is praying for cancellation of the election on the ground of irregularities, malpractices and non-qualification of Buhari to contest the election.

Buhari was declared the winner of the election with 15,191,847 votes, while Abubakar, his closest challenger, polled 11,262,978 votes according to the results declared by the Independent National Electoral Commission on February 26.

Since counsel to the petitioners and the respondents adopted their final written addresses on August 21, attention has shifted to the judgment day, which definitely must come on or before September 13. Ordinarily, annulling a presidential election in Nigeria based on allegations of electoral irregularities is somewhat Herculean, but considering the issues in contention at the tribunal, not a few are of the opinion that the outcome will improve on the country’s jurisprudence. Apart from Atiku’s insistence that the presidential election was rigged, his case on Buhari’s educational qualification is one issue that has elicited divergent reactions following startling revelations made by witnesses at the tribunal.

On July 19, Atiku closed his case after calling 62 witnesses out of the 400, earlier penciled down by his legal team to give oral and documentary testimonies in a bid to prove that he won the 2019 presidential election. On August 1, Buhari’s lead counsel, Wole Olanipekun SAN announced a surprised closure of his case after calling 7 witnesses out of about initially proposed. Some analysts hold the view that the abrupt closing of Buhari’s case was a face saving strategy deployed by his legal team to forestall the raging hullabaloos arising from the certificate saga. The INEC (1st respondent) and APC (3rd) did not call any witness. Could this be helpful to Atiku’s case because in law, deposition not controverted is deemed factual and true.

Before the adoption of final written addresses by all parties in the legal action on August 21, the Justice Garba Mohammed led 5-man tribunal, had witnessed some highpoints in the course of proceedings.

On July 3, the tribunal rejected Atiku’s plea to reopen his case against Buhari and the APC. Atiku had filed an application to reopen argument on the objection and competence of the petition he filed against the APC and Buhari. Counsel to the APC, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), had filed a motion dated May 15, 2019, wherein he urged the PEPT to strike out the entire petition of Atiku on the ground that the petition did not comply with some provisions of the Electoral Act and the 1999 Constitution, as amended. Alternatively, Fagbemi, while moving the motion on June 11, had begged the tribunal to delete several paragraphs in Atiku’s petition on the grounds that they were vague allegations that could be supported by law.

Although Atiku and PDP’s legal led by Dr. Levi Uzoukwu filed notice of objection, they failed to file counter affidavits to deny the claims of the APC in its motion. In a bid to correct the error, Atiku’s counsel filed a motion praying the tribunal to set aside the proceedings of June 11. Atiku and PDP argued that they were denied right to fair hearing and that the APC caused confusion when it filed two motions dated May 14 and May 15 on same subject matter but later withdrew that of May 14, which the petitioners had responded to. Having realized the intent of the APC, the petitioners urged the tribunal to allow them to reopen argument and to grant them leave to file counter affidavit against the APC motion.

Ruling on the issue, Chairman of the tribunal, Justice Mohammed Garba, held that Atiku cannot be allowed to reopen argument especially to file his counter affidavit on the objection made against his petition because the mandatory seven days to do so had elapsed. Justice Garba, agreed with Fagbemi that the mandatory seven days for Atiku to respond to APC’s motion had expired.

The tribunal Chairman said it was established beyond doubt that Atiku’s legal team was served with APC’s motion on May 16, a day after it was filed and that it was a fatal error and mistake for Atiku’s counsel to have chosen and elected to file only notice of objection but refused to file counter affidavit as required by law to dispute the claims of the APC.

The tribunal also rejected Atiku’s claim that he was denied right to fair hearing because his legal team was adequately represented in all the proceedings and chose to conduct their case the way it suited them.

The panel also agreed with Fagbemi that court decisions or proceedings can only be set aside in the face of fraud, lack of fact, lack of jurisdiction and absence of substantial reason or where it is established that the court had been misled. The court added that in the instant matter, no evidence was given to justify the failure of the petitioner to comply with the mandatory seven days within which to respond or to oppose the motion duly served on him on May 16. Furthermore, Justice Garba held that the proceedings of June 11, as they relate to APC’s motion challenging the competence of Atiku’s petition cannot be set aside by the tribunal because cogent and verifiable reasons to grant such request were not adduced by the PDP legal team.

On June 24, the tribunal dismissed an application by Atiku, wherein he sought leave of court to inspect the INEC’s central server. The tribunal held that granting such request would amount to pre-judging the main issue meant for trial during the substantive hearing of the petition. The tribunal held that INEC had denied the existence of the said central server and insisted that results of the election were not electronically transmitted into any server as alleged by the petitioners. Therefore, the tribunal chairman reasoned that granting the application would amount to deciding the central issue in the petition at the interlocutory stage.

However, on the issue of Buhari’s qualification, many are of the firm view that except for placing reliance on technicalities, the petitioners have a strong case. Adopting his final address, Atiku’s lead counsel submitted that Buhari used “fundamental falsehood” to secure clearance from INEC to contest the Presidential poll. Atiku posited that Buhari “lied on oath” in his Form CF001, which he presented to INEC before participating in the election. Atiku’s lawyer referred the tribunal to a portion of Buhari’s INEC Form where he claimed to have three different certificates; namely, Primary School Leaving Certificate, WAEC certificate and Officers Cadet certificate.

Uzoukwu had expressed surprise that, “No provisional certificate, no certified true copy of the certificates, no photocopy of certificates and in fact, no electronic version of any of the certificates was presented by Buhari throughout the hearing of the petition to dispute the claim of the petitioners.

Culled from The Independent

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