Alex Enumah in Abuja
The legal teams of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and his party in the petition challenging the victory of President Muhammadu Buhari in the February 23 presidential election, yesterday hinted that it would seek accelerated hearing of Atiku and PDP’s petition at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal.
A top member of the legal team confided in THISDAY about the plan to fast-track hearing of the petition to make up for the loss of time arising from the controversy over the membership of Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, which led her to recuse herself as chairman of the tribunal on May 22, 2019, and the delay in naming her replacement.
Statutorily, the tribunal has 180 days, which began counting from when the petition was filed on March 18, 2019, to determine the case.
The tribunal, however, resumed sitting yesterday following the appointment of the presiding Justice of the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, Justice Mohammed Garba as Justice Bulkachuwa’s replacement.
Justice Garba has also fixed today for hearing of all motions objecting to the petition of Atiku and the PDP.
Speaking to THISDAY on the replacement, in Abuja, the senior lawyer said: “There is no gainsaying the fact that we need accelerated hearing and that comes without saying so.
“We want accelerated hearing because so many days have gone by since she recused herself and the constitution of the new panel which started today.
He said the presidential election tribunal is time bound, with only 180 days to conclude the hearing and deliver judgment, adding that, “We have already done half of the time.”
The tribunal, earlier presided over by Justice Bulkachuwa, had adjourned on May 22, 2019, after Bulkachuwa recused herself from the panel, following Atiku’s petition alleging likelihood of bias against him and his party, PDP because her husband and son are members of the All Progressives Congress (APC).
Though the panel in its ruling delivered by Justice Peter Ige, had dismissed the petition asking Justice Bulkachuwa to withdraw her membership of the panel for lacking merit, Justice Bulkachuwa announced that she was stepping aside on personal grounds.
However, there was no replacement nearly three weeks after she withdrew from the matter, prompting the petitioners to write a letter of protest against the delay as well as threatening to petition the National Judicial Council (NJC).
At the resumed sitting of the tribunal yesterday, Justice Garba, on behalf of other members of the panel, promised to be fair to all parties in the suit and called for maximum cooperation from lawyers representing parties in order to give expeditious hearing to the petitions.
He also fixed June 11, 2019 for hearing of all motions objecting to the petition of Atiku and the PDP.
Following the pledge by counsel to parties in the four petitions against the emergence of Buhari as winner of the presidential poll, Justice Garba accordingly called the first case, that of the Hope Democratic Party (HDP) and its presidential candidate, Ambrose Oworu.
After parties in the suit identified their various processes before the tribunal, Justice Garba, fixed June 13 for hearing of motions filed against the hearing of the HDP’s petition.
The party and its presidential candidate, Chief Ambrose Oworu, had approached the tribunal to nullify the victory of Buhari in the presidential poll.
In their petition filed on March 7, 2019, the petitioners asked the tribunal to nullify Buhari’s election on the grounds of substantial non-compliance with the Electoral Act.
However, at yesterday’s proceedings, lawyers to Buhari, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and APC in their brief of argument, urged the tribunal to dismiss the suit of the HDP for being incompetent and lacking in merit.
However, a mild drama ensued when a factional National Chairman of the HDP, Poland Awinitabre, disowned counsel for the HDP and Oworu.
Two different lawyers, Nelson Ekwedibia and Donald M. O., had announced appearance for the petitioners, forcing the panel to ask Awinitabre, who had announced appearance for the party, to identify the actual counsel for the HDP.
Responding, he said: “The party has not engaged Nelson Ekwedibia.”
But Ekwedibia told the panel that he was engaged by Owuru, who is both national chairman of the HDP and the party’s candidate in the presidential election.
He said he has been representing the two petitioners since the beginning of the case.
Justice Garba, however, announced that the panel would on June 13 hear all applications objecting to the hearing of the HDP’s petition.
Similarly, he fixed today for hearing of all applications against the petition of Atiku and the PDP.
Buhari and his party, the APC, while identifying their various processes before the tribunal yesterday, asked the tribunal to strike out Atiku and PDP’s petition challenging their victory at the presidential poll for being incompetent and lacking merit.
Counsel to INEC, Mr. Yunus Usman (SAN), cited failure to comply with paragraph 18 (1) first schedule of the Electoral Act as grounds for the call for the dismissal of Atiku and PDP’s petition.
INEC, in another application, urged the tribunal to strike out some parts of the petition and at the end of the day, the entire petition.
Usman further prayed the panel to strike out Atiku and PDP’s petition for failure to join Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, in the suit.
On his part, Buhari’s lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), prayed for the dismissal of the entire petition filed by Atiku and his party.
He also prayed for the striking out of the reply filed by the petitioners to the reply of the respondents’ application.
Mr. Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), representing the APC, in his submission, told the tribunal that he has three applications praying for the striking out of the entire petition or striking out of some paragraphs of the petition.
The panel, however, announced that it would hear all the applications today.
Also, the panel fixed June 17 for hearing of all objections to the hearing of the petition filed by the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM).
It, however, dismissed the petition of the Coalition for Change (C4C) against the Buhari’s election.
The dismissal was sequel to an application for withdrawal of the petition filed by the petitioners on June 10, 2019.
When the matter was called, Olanipekun and Fagbemi informed the court that their clients were yet to be served with a copy of the petition.
Olanipekun said at the last adjourned date, the panel had granted an application for substituted service but that up till this morning, the petitioners were yet to serve the processes on the first defendant.
Fagbemi, who told the panel that it is so easy to serve his client the processes, wondered why up till now his client had not been served with the petition.
Responding, counsel for C4C, Obed Aguh, informed the tribunal that an application for the withdrawal of their petition against the election of Buhari was filed yesterday but was yet to be served on the respondents.
However, following the non-objection of the application, Justice Garba accordingly dismissed the suit of the C4C.
INEC had declared Buhari winner of the presidential election.
Following the declaration, Atiku and his party, in their petition, approached the tribunal to nullify Buhari’s election on the grounds of alleged malpractices and gross violation of Electoral Act 2010, as amended.
Atiku in his petition specifically asked the tribunal to disqualify Buhari as winner of the February 23 presidential election, on the grounds that he (Buhari) did not possess the requisite academic qualification to contest for the presidency.
The petition, which is premised on five grounds, alleged that Buhari lied about his academic qualification as well as schools attended in his form 001 submitted to INEC for purpose of contesting the 2019 presidential election.
While the HDP and Owuru’s petition marked CA/EPT/PRE/001/2019, was filed March 7, the petition of the C4C along with its presidential candidate and that of the PDM and its presidential candidate were filed on March 19, 2019.
The HDP, C4C and PDM in their separate petitions prayed the tribunal to nullify the election of Buhari on grounds of alleged massive rigging of the February 23 presidential election as well as substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the law by the INEC.