After Calling Seven Witnesses, Buhari Closes Defence in Atiku’s Petition

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  • APC: We won’t call any witness
  • It is face saving move, say petitioners’ lawyers

Alex Enumah in Abuja

President Muhammadu Buhari in a surprised move Thursday announced the closure of his defence in the petition filed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, against his declaration as winner of the February 23 presidential election.

Buhari had opened his defence on Tuesday, a day after the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) declined to call any witness or tender any documents in defence of its conduct of the poll.

Atiku and the PDP in their petition filed on March 18, 2019 had alleged that they and not Buhari and his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), won the election.

Apart from allegations of electoral malpractices, violence and suppression of voters raised by the petitioners, they also asked the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal hearing the petition to annul the victory of Buhari on the grounds that he did not possess the necessary academic qualifications to contest the poll in the first place.

In arguing their petition, they had called in 62 witnesses to testify that the election was rigged in favour of Buhari and APC.
The witnesses had accused some INEC staff of altering and manipulating results in their areas of supervision.

After the petitioners closed their case on July 19, the tribunal had adjourned till July 29 for INEC to defend the allegations by the petitioners.

But in a dramatic twist, INEC through its lead counsel, Yunus Usman (SAN), said the commission would not be calling any witnesses as it was satisfied with the evidence of the petitioners’ witnesses, which according to Usman, did not controvert INEC’s position on the February 23 presidential poll.

Buhari, accordingly, took the opportunity to inform the court that he was ready to call his witnesses.
However, after calling seven witnesses in two days, Buhari through his lead counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), told the tribunal that he was not calling any more witnesses.

“We are satisfied with the evidence we have led. We are closing our defence for President Muhammadu Buhari as second respondents and we are ready to address the court on laws,” he said.

The tribunal had allotted six days each to INEC, Buhari and APC to defend the petitions raised by Atiku and PDP.

At Wednesday’s proceedings, Olanipekun after calling four witnesses had prayed the court to adjourn till yesterday for continuation of their defence. But when the matter was called, he said his client had decided to close his defence.

He said after a study of the hardware, software, server and evidence of Atiku and PDP, they decided that the defence must end at this stage.

The senior lawyer said the evidence adduced by Buhari and issues ventilated inside the court and not outside the court had made the legal team to come to the conclusion that it was time to restrict the legal duel to the four corners of the court by those who are learned.
In another surprise move, the APC represented by Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) also said the party would be closing its defence since it did not intend to call in any witness.

Fagbemi told the tribunal that after reviewing the position of the party in the petition and conduct of the election, there was no point in over killing the issue and thanked the tribunal for the patience.

Fagbemi added that the APC was satisfied with the cross-examination of witnesses and other documents and evidence put forward by Buhari to defend himself.
“The APC is satisfied and will not call any witness to open any defence,” Fagbemi said.
INEC lawyer, Usman, did not object to the position canvassed by Buhari and APC.

However, Atiku and PDP’s counsel, Dr. Levy Uzoukwu (SAN), told the tribunal that the dramatic decision of Buhari and APC to cut short their defence was a face-saving grace in view of the revelations emanating from witnesses called by Buhari himself.

“We saw this coming; we predicated it and it has come to pass that they have no defence to the issues raised by the petitioners in the petition,” he said.

Uzoukwu thanked Buhari and APC for not wasting the time of the court and informed the tribunal that the petitioners have no objection to the decision of Buhari and APC.

The tribunal Chairman, Justice Mohammed Garba, in a short ruling. ordered the respondents to file their final address between Monday and Wednesday next week, stressing that the petitioners upon receipt of the address shall have seven days to file their reply to the three respondents.

In addition, the judge held that INEC, Buhari and APC shall thereafter have two days to respond on point of law to issues that may be raised by Atiku and PDP, stating that filing and exchange of processes must end on August 16, 2019.

The tribunal chairman subsequently fixed August 21, 2019, for all parties in the petition to adopt their final addresses after which judgment date will be fixed.

Addressing journalists shortly after the proceedings, Chief Mike Ozekhome (SAN), a lawyer in the legal team of Atiku and PDP, said the action of INEC and APC was a big surprise.

Ozekhome wondered how a party could announce that it was closing its defence that was never opened in the first place.
He, however, acknowledged the right of the respondents to close their case at any time, adding that the choice to do so belong to them.
Ozekhome added that Atiku’s petition would expand election jurisprudence in Nigeria and would further show Nigeria’s seriousness to democratic norms to the outside world.

The tribunal would however resume sitting on Monday August 5, with hearing in the Hope Democratic Party (HDP’s) petition.