Alex Enumah in Abuja
When will the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal determine who between President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) and his main challenger in the February 23 presidential election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), won the election?
The question begs for answer six days to the deadline specified by the 1999 Constitution as altered and Electoral Act 2010 as amended for the determination of a petition filed by Atiku and his party.
That was the cause of anxiety in the camps of both parties yesterday as they await with bated breath, the tribunal’s decision in the petition filed by Atiku and the opposition party challenging the declaration of Buhari as winner of the election.
The concerns are triggered by the fact that as at yesterday, the tribunal had not fixed a date for judgment after August 21 when it reserved its verdict on the matter and a few days to the expiration of the 180 days provided by the Electoral Act, for the tribunal to conclude the matter.
The five-member panel of the tribunal, led by Justice Mohammed Garba, reserved judgment after the petitioners and respondents adopted their final written addresses.
Justice Garba while reserving judgment on the petition had informed parties that the tribunal would communicate to them the date the verdict would be delivered.
Sequel to Section 134 (2) and (3) of the Electoral Act 2010 (as amended), the hearing and judgment in petitions at the tribunal of first instance are supposed to be concluded within 180 days.
However, 19 days after it adjourned to deliver judgment and with barely six days in the life span of the petition, THISDAY’s investigation last night revealed that the tribunal is yet to communicate the date for the judgment to the parties in the petition.
While Atiku and PDP are the petitioners in the suit, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Buhari and APC are the first to third respondents respectively.
Speaking exclusively to THISDAY yesterday in Abuja one of the counsel to the APC, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), said no date had been communicated to them, adding that “it is not going to be a secret thing, once a date is given, we will all know.”
Also speaking, a senior member in the legal team of Atiku and PDP, Chief Chris Uche (SAN), confirmed that the tribunal as at the time of talking with THISDAY was yet to communicate with them concerning the date for judgement.
While looking at Thursday or Friday as possible day for the delivery of the judgment, Uche stated that long notices were usually not given in such circumstances.
“I’m sorry I cannot confirm yet. We are looking at Thursday or Friday. We are following up on it. As we text, our lawyers are at the court registry waiting for official communication.
“I am sure by tomorrow we will know. Usually, in such matters as I have noticed in the recent past, a long notice is not usually given,’’ the senior lawyer stated.
The 180 days provided by law within which an election petition must be heard and judgment delivered, will expire on Sunday, September 15, 2019 and as such any decision taken outside that day becomes null and void, a mere academic exercise and disadvantageous to the petitioners.
In order not to be caught in the time trap, the Atiku/PDP camp had last Wednesday written to the tribunal on the imperative not to allow the petition at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal to be caught by legal timeline.
THISDAY gathered yesterday that nearly a week after the letter was received at the Court of Appeal, response to the letter was still being awaited.
The PDP and Atiku had on March 8 petitioned the tribunal over the February 23 election in which INEC returned Buhari as duly elected.
However, following what he considered as perceived foot-dragging by the tribunal in hearing his petition, Atiku had on June 2 first petitioned the Court of Appeal alleging a deliberate ploy to truncate the constitutional timeline of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal.
The petition came 11 days after the President of the Court of Appeal and erstwhile chairperson of the 2019 Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, recused herself from the tribunal following the petition of the PDP and Atiku/Obi legal team.
The PDP and Atiku, among other things, had said Justice Bulkachuwa, being the wife of Adamu Bulkachuwa, a prominent card-carrying member of the APC and senator-elect for Bauchi North Senatorial District, which is a political party involved in the suit, would be biased in deciding the case.
After Justice Bulkachuwa recused herself from the case, it took her over two weeks to appoint a replacement, which made Atiku to express concerns over the delay in her finding a replacement for herself on the tribunal.
The PDP candidate in a letter through his counsel, dated May 31, 2019, urged the President of the Court of Appeal to appoint a replacement forthwith.
According to him, the tribunal has a timeline to prosecute the petitions, adding that 76 days have already been expended out of the 180 days allowed by law, as seen in Section 134 (2) and (3) of the Electoral Act (2010 as amended).
With Justice Bulkachuwa naming her replacement, the tribunal resumed sitting during which Atiku and PDP called 62 witnesses to prove their case.
While INEC did not call any witness, Buhari and APC called seven witnesses before abruptly ending their defence.
Many legal minds had said the expected tribunal’s decision was one that would define the jurisprudence of electoral matters and democracy in the country.
Atiku and PDP in the petition, had insisted that they and not Buhari and APC won the presidential election.
According to them INEC had connived with Buhari, APC and agents of the federal government, including the military to rig the election in favour of Buhari.
They therefore urged the tribunal to nullify the victory of Buhari and declare them winner of the presidential election.
The petitioners also asked the tribunal to nullify Buhari’s participation in the election on the grounds that he did not possess the necessary academic qualifications for the office of the president, stating that Buhari submitted false information to the INEC to aid his qualification for the said election.
In their final address, Atiku and PDP, had argued that the respondents instead of defending the claim by the petitioners that Buhari failed to provide proof of any of the three certificates he claimed to possess, dwelled on the issue of whether the president could speak English language or not.
According to lead counsel to the petitioners, Dr. Levy Uzuokwu (SAN), the mere fact that artisans on the streets of Nigeria can speak English language does not make them qualified to contest for the presidency.
The PDP presidential candidate also faulted the claim of INEC that it has no central server, adding that server is a storage facility, which include computer, database of registered voters, number of permanent voter card and election results amongst others are stored for references.
He said the claim by INEC that it has no device like server to store information, “is laughable, tragic and a story for the dogs”.
Atiku’s lawyer in the final address debunked the claim of INEC that collation and transmission of results electronically was prohibited by law in Nigeria.
However, Usman urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition with substantial cost because INEC conducted the election in total compliance with the 1999 Constitution (as amended) and the Electoral Act 2010.
Usman said INEC did not transmit election results electronically because the law prohibited doing so and that the commission did not call any witness because there was no need to do so.
In his defence, Buhari through his counsel, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), said Atiku’s petition was liable to be dismissed because it was lacking in evidence, merit and substance and that the petition was ill-advised and signified nothing.
Olanipekun cited Section 131 of the Constitution, which stipulated a minimum of secondary school attendance to qualify for election in Nigeria, adding that Buhari cannot go beyond that and he does not need to tender or attached certificate before he can get qualification for any election.
He averred that there was nothing in law to persuade the tribunal to nullify the February 23 presidential election as pleaded by Atiku and urged the tribunal to dismiss the petition with substantial cost.
Fagbemi, in his own submission, said the petition lacked quality evidence that could warrant the nullification of the election as pleaded by the petitioners and urged the tribunal to throw it out with a huge cost.