By Alex Enumah in Abuja
The Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) on Wednesday, fixed May 22 for hearing in an application by the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) in the February 23 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, seeking the withdrawal of tribunal Chairman, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, from the panel.
Atiku and his party, the PDP, are seeking the withdrawal of Justice Bulkachuwa from the panel that would hear their petition against the election of Buhari on the likelihood of bias against them.
At the resumed hearing, the lead counsel to Atiku and PDP, Dr Levi Uzoukwu (SAN), applied for 10 minutes private audience with the five-member panel and lead counsel in the matter for an undisclosed reason.
However at the end of the meeting held in the Chambers, Justice Bulkachuwa announced in the open court that the meeting discussed extensively the application by Atiku and PDP that she recused herself from the matter.
Justice Bulkachuwa said since the request of the petitioners has been in the public domain, it would be better for the application to be heard in the open court. She then asked the petitioners’ lawyer to move the application.
Uzoukwu said the petitioners will come by way of a formal application, promising to file the application Thursday (May 16).
While the counsel to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Yunus Ustaz (SAN), said they are not opposed to the application, counsel to President Muhammadu Buhari, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), said he was ready to respond to the application if the petitioners are ready to move the application orally.
He however said if the petitioners prefer a formal application, then they will be asking for the normal seven days provided by the law to respond.
The counsel to the All Progressives Congress (APC), Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) said he aligned himself with the position of Olanipekun.
Consequently, Justice Bulkachuwa said: “Application yet to be filed is adjourned to May 22 for hearing.”
Meanwhile, the tribunal has ordered the service of the petition of the Coalition for Change (C4C) on Buhari through substituted service.
The court ordered that the petition on Buhari be served on him through any of the national officers of the APC at the party’s national headquarters at No 40 Blantyre Street, Wuse 2, Abuja.
The order was sequel to an application moved by the lawyer of the C4C, Obed Aguh.
Earlier, the police had barricaded all roads leading to the Court of Appeal, Abuja, venue of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, forcing commuters around the Federal Secretariat and Force headquarters to seek alternative routes.
At about 9.20am when THISDAY got to the venue, stern-looking policemen and officers of the Nigerian Security and Civil Defense Corps (NSCDC) have codoned off the area, screening and interrogating anyone seeking to access the tribunal.
Journalists with ID cards were however given access to the premises including robed legal practitioners.
The party had in a letter to the Court of Appeal President dated May 9, 2019 and signed by the National Chairman of the PDP, Chief Uche Secondus, and the party’s National Secretary, Senator Umar Tsauri, said that going by the utterances of Justice Bulkachuwa at the inuagural session of the tribunal, the party was certain that justice would not be served at the end of the day, if Justice Bulkachuwa remains a member of the panel.
“My Lord, in your address at the opening of the pre-hearing today (Wednesday), you made some remarks that are both frightening and heartwarming. For instance in your opening paragraph you said:
“Elections are held in Nigeria every four years into elective positions. No matter how well the election is conducted there are bound to be complaints….”
“This remark rocked our confidence in a panel led by Your Lordship to determine our fate in an election which could be one of the ones that were very well ‘conducted’ in Your Lordship’s opinion.”
The party further submitted that Justice Bulkachuwa ought not to have been a member of the panel at all knowing full well that members of her family including her husband are all member of the All Progressives Congress (APC), a party in the petition.
The party said that their worry arose from the very unique and critical position of the office of the President of the Court of Appeal, which is saddled with the sacred responsibility of hearing petitions arising from the presidential election.
“This fear was palpable enough just with you as the President of the Court of Appeal but has now been worsened and compounded by the discovery that you have decided to appoint yourself as the chairman of the panel to hear the petition,” the PDP stressed.
They however reminded Justice Bulkachuwa to be guided by her own words when she said: “Justice demands that judges who will sit in the panel of a tribunal be divested from all forms of bias” and accordingly do the needful.
“We are reasoning that, armed with this golden rule of justice and fair hearing and given your direct intimacy through your dear husband, with the APC, one of the parties in this election petition, Your Lordship, would have exercised your constitutional right and powers guardedly, judiciously and judicially by excluding yourself from the panel of this Honourable Court sitting over this particular petition.
“This is the only way you could have divested yourself from all forms of bias and be seen to be fair, both to yourself, our party, that is contesting against your husband’s party in this petition, and indeed, all Nigerians, who are keenly interested in the just, transparently impartial and unbiased determination of this petition over an election which outcome obviously did not respect their wishes as expressed through their votes,” the PDP said in the letter.
At the inaugural sitting of the panel, scores of protesters had besieged the venue of the tribunal, with placards urging the tribunal to do justice in the matter.
At Wednesday’s sitting also, notwithstanding the heavy presence of security operatives, large number of persons perceived to be in support of the PDP’s candidate were seen gathered near the complex of the office of the Head of Service, by the Federal Secretariat, Abuja.
The group under the aegis of Support for Atiku’s Mandate called on the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal to nullify the election of President Buhari and declare Atiku Abubakar winner of the 2019 presidential election.
They also asked Justice Bulkachuwa to recuse herself from hearing the matter.
The spokesperson of the group, Justice Abraham, said the group will not rest until Atiku gets back his mandate, adding that Nigerians freely gave their mandate to Atiku, following the failure of President Buhari to deliver dividends of democracy to the people.
In attendance at Wednesday’s sitting are PDP’s National Chairman Uche Secondus, PDP’s National Publicity Secretary Kola Ologbodiyan and former EFCC chairman Nuhu Ribadu, who represented President Buhari.