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2019 shadow looms as Appeal Court President skips presidential election trial

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SUNDAY EJIKE and LANRE ADEWOLE revisit history as the inaugural proceedings of the Presidential Election Petition Court held.

The Nigerian Judiciary on Monday commenced the substantive process of determining the next lawful president of the federal republic, as full proceedings began in the multiple petitions challenging the election of Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

The Court of Appeal, serving as the court of first instance and which christened itself as the Presidential Election Petition Court, has put a five-person panel together, to determine the multiple challenges to the outcome of the February 25, presidential election.

A glaring absence on the trial panel, is the President of the penultimate court, Justice Monica Bolna’an Dongban-Mensem, widely expected to lead the trial and provide required leadership.

There was no word about the self-exclusion, since putting the panel together, was her call.

Apart from missing in action at the inaugural sitting, there was no mention of her issuing any directives to the panel on how to conduct the proceedings, suggesting that she is totally out of the national assignment.

No official reason was volunteered for her absence as there are no known contention about her participation by any parties in the multiple petitions, before the court.

In her place as the head of the panel, was Justice Haruna Tsammani, who doesn’t appear like a placeholder, considering he didn’t mention anything about being a stand-in for the PCA.

Dongban-Mensem is likely trying to avoid the embarrassing meltdown suffered by her immediate predecessor-in-office, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, during a similar assignment in 2019 when former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), challenged the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari.

At the inaugural sitting of the five-person panel, protest broke out in the open court over calls to the PCA, to recuse herself for alleged stain of partisanship.

PDP, which fielded Abubakar against Buhari of the ruling party, insisted that the APC membership of the jurist’s husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, made it inappropriate for her, to sit on the presidential trial panel, let alone head it.

Her husband also went on to win Bauchi North senate seat.

Bulkachuwa ignored the protest letter earlier written by the opposition party, asking her not to empanel herself for the adjudication of the February 23, 2019 poll, and surprised everyone with her appearance at the head of the panel, at the inaugural sitting.

The petitioners would have none of it and at the insistence of the lead counsel of the PDP, Livy Uzoukwu, SAN, Bulkachuwa, had to embarrassingly meet the protesters in chambers, where it was agreed that the case against her participation, should be argued in the open court.

Addressing the court after the forced break, she said, “ the counsel for the two petitioners raise an issue in chambers directing me to excuse myself from hearing their petition. This matter has initially been brought to my attention in a letter from the office of the National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party, dated May 8.

“Their request is now in public domain, but the counsel for the petitioners must approach the court with a formal application” she requested.

Days after the open grandstanding, she withdrew herself from the presidential election trial, saying, “I am recusing myself from the panel for personal reasons”, adding that a new presiding judge, would be appointed.

Obviously to save her face, the panel, without her, went ahead to rule PDP out of order, claiming that the jurist’s relationship with her senator-husband and son, Aliyu Abubakar who was a governorship aspirant on the platform of APC, was not enough to infer, she would be biased.

Unlike Bulkachuwa, no relative of the incumbent has been ratted out of being closely-connected to any of the contending political parties before the court.m

Interestingly though, almost all the dramatis personae in the 2019 protest, are currently before the court, in one capacity or the other, or simply on the opposing side to the side they took four years back, especially the senior lawyers.

Livy Uzoukwu, SAN, PDP’s lead counsel in 2019, who spearheaded the open court putsch against Bulkachuwa, is now the lead counsel to the Labour Party and its presidential candidate, Peter Obi.

Wole Olanipekun, SAN, who led the legal team of Buhari in 2019, is still the leader of the team, defending the election of Tinubu.

Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, who held the brief of the ruling APC then, is still in the same role, before the court, four years after.

However, INEC has now traded Yunus Ustaz, SAN of four years back, for Abubakar Mahmood (SAN) this time around.

With Uzoukwu now on the side of the one who was Atiku’s running mate in 2019, the former Vice President, has now settled for Chris Uche, SAN, among other heavyweight Silk.

 

Warning and pledge

Since Justice Tsammani took over the leadership mantle of the panel, he has been trying to show he is in charge. The judge who famously shocked now-late Oyo governor, Abiola Ajimobi leading the Court of Appeal panel that dismissed his petition against the senatorial win of Kola Balogun, at the inaugural sitting, moved to take control, by issuing warnings to parties, in his opening remarks.

Tsammani, noted that the Court is known as Presidential Election Petition Court and not Tribunal and warned against sensational statements from parties in the matter for the safety of the country.

“We should avoid unnecessary time-wasting applications as election matters are time-bound”, he said and promised that justice would be done at the end of the day.

The senior counsel in the matter, quickly queued behind the Court, with pledges.

Olanipekun, representing Tinubu, pledged the unflinching support of the Bar, in whatever the Court intends to do in ensuring that the petitions are heard expeditiously.

Counsel to the Atiku Abubakar and his party, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), joined Olanipekun in assuring the court of the support of his team in delivering justice in the matter.

According to Uche, “We shall do everything possible to see that this matter is amicably resolved so that the country can move forward”.

Livy Uzoukwu (SAN), for Obi and Labour, also pledged the support of his team to enable the court resolve the petitions seamlessly.

Counsel to INEC, Abubakar Mahmood (SAN) also aligned with the commitment made on behalf of the Bar, saying, “We recognize the importance of the matter to the country. We shall do everything possible to assist the court in arriving at justice”.

Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) representing APC. also promised that the legal team of the party in the matter would provide all the necessary assistance to the court for quick hearing and determination of the petitions challenging the victory of Bola Tinubu, the presidential candidate of the ruling party.

 

One for Tinubu

At the inaugural sitting of the Court, the Action Alliance (AA) and its presidential candidate, Solomon David Okanigbuan, through their counsel, Mr. Oba Maduabuchi (SAN) moved a motion seeking the withdrawal of their petition numbered, CA/PEPC)01/2023, challenging the declaration of Tinubu as the president elect by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), on March 1, 2023.

After moving the motion and there was no objection from the respondents, the five-person panel, granted the request for the withdrawal of the petition and consequently dismissed it.

Apart from Tsammani, other judges on the panel include, Justices Stephen Adah, who is the presiding Justice of the Asaba Division of the Court of Appeal, Misitura Bolaji- Yusuf, Boloukuoromo Moses Ugo and Abba Mohammed.

There was also a mild drama earlier when the AA’s petition, the first of the petitions against Tinubu’s election, was called; Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau state stood up and announced himself as the representative of the President-elect, but was not granted recognition as such, by the panel.

“You cannot represent an individual. Tinubu is not a corporation that would need a representative,” the presiding justice held.

Lalong, had to amend his representation, saying, “My Lords, in that case, I will represent the All Progressives Congress (APC).”

The Court also demonstrated its commitment to quickly run through the national assignment by giving short adjournments to parties, to put all the requisite processes together.

It adjourned further pre-hearing session on the petition of the Labour Party and its candidate, Obi, to nullify Tinubu’s victory, till today.

The court equally fixed the same date for another petition by the Action Peoples Party (APP) while it heard the case of the Peoples Democratic Party and its  Presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, yesterday, following a short adjournment on Monday, till Tuesday.

While adjourning the cases, the court urged parties to identify all the witness statements and documents they would rely on or object to, during the actual hearing of the petitions.

With the dismissal of the petition by the Action Alliance and its presidential candidate, the petitions against Tinubu’s election before the court, are now that of, Atiku Abubakar and his Party, Peter Obi and the Labour Party (LP), Action Peoples Party (APP) and the Allied Peoples Movement (APM), where-in, they seek the nullification of Tinubu’s election on the grounds of substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the Constitution, the Electoral Act and INEC’s guidelines for the conduct of the election.

 

Atiku, Obi’s cases

Atiku Abubakar, who hinged his petition on five grounds, is seeking the conduct of a fresh election due to alleged irregularities at polling units on February 25.

He and his party claimed that Tinubu was declared the winner when all results and accreditation data from polling units had not been transmitted and uploaded by INEC.

Obi is also alleging various irregularities, insisting that Tinubu and his running mate, Senator Kashim Shettima, were not qualified to contest.

The LP Presidential candidate insists that, the President-elect did not win the majority of lawful votes and failed to garner one-quarter of votes in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT).

The two other political parties, Allied Peoples Movement (APM) and Action Peoples Party (APP) had, in their separate petitions, challenged Tinubu’s declaration as the winner of the presidential election by INEC

APM, in its petition numbered, CA/PEPC/04/2023, joined INEC, APC, Tinubu, Kashim Shettima and Kabir Masari as respondents.

In the petition of the APP  Tinubu, APC and INEC are the 1st to 3rd respondents respectively.

APM and APP are challenging the outcome of the presidential election on the grounds of alleged substantial non-compliance with the electoral laws as well as INEC guidelines for the conduct of the election.

The APM is contending that Tinubu was not qualified to contest the election on the grounds of alleged double nomination of his vice-presidential candidate.

It is also questioning Tinubu’s candidacy on the grounds of the substitution of the initial “placeholder”, Kabir Masari, with  Shettima.

On its part, APP claimed that Tinubu was, at the time of the election, not qualified to contest the poll by virtue of the provisions of Sections 131(c) and 142 of the Constitution and Section 35 of the Electoral Act 2022.

The APC had already filed its objection to the five petitions, urging the court to discountenance them all.

 

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