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Presidential Election Petition Tribunal: Weighing implications of judgment

By Bridget Chiedu Onochie, Abuja
15 September 2019   |   4:06 am
The legal issues spawned by last Wednesday’s judgment against the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate in the February 23 election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, are far from abating.

The legal issues spawned by last Wednesday’s judgment against the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate in the February 23 election, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, are far from abating. Both had approached the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, seeking overturn of the declaration of Muhammadu Buhari as the elected President in the exercise.

The grounds included perjury allegations against Mr. President, manipulation of election results by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), financial inducement by the ruling party, intimidation of voters as well as declaration of result figures that conflicted what was transmitted electronically to INEC server.

But in the judgment that lasted over eight hours, the Tribunal resolved the entire petition in favour of the respondents. Taking the issues one after the other, the tribunal reduced them to naught and emerged with the conclusion that President Buhari was not only qualified to contest the election but eminently qualified to do so.

But the judgment has been penned among the controversial verdicts in the history of Nigeria. For the direct beneficiaries, the decision of the tribunal was received differently.

While the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) stalwarts received it warmheartedly as a validation of the unwavering confidence reposed on the party by Nigerian electorates, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), which conducted the controversial election, was elated for having been exonerated from any wrong doing.

Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari has long dedicated the victory to God and Nigerians.

As expected in such circumstance, the petitioners – PDP and Atiku immediately rejected the decision of the tribunal in its entirety.

According to them, the judgment was provocative, barefaced subversion of justice and direct assault on the integrity of the country’s justice system.

However, beyond the distinct positions of key players in the matter, some other Nigerians, particularly legal practitioners have been reacting differently. Some of them showed outright discomfort with the manner the judgment was dispensed.

For this group of Nigerians, the tribunal only confirmed their fears, having concluded on their minds that the matter will never be resolved in favour of the petitioners.

One of their reasons was not far from the insinuation that the judiciary as it is presently constituted lacked the courage to take any adverse decision against the executive.

For others however, it was in the best interest of the nation to allow the sleeping dog lie. This school of thought believed that doing otherwise at this crucial moment in the nation’s history would have had serious implications on national peace.

The Tribunal in its judgment held that the petitioners failed to substantiate their claims on several issues brought before it, describing most of them as hearsay and lacking probate values.

One the allegation of perjury, the Tribunal held that President Buhari possessed the requisite qualification and was eminently qualified to contest election since his curriculum vitae tendered in evidence by the petitioners, “contained impressive credentials” that qualified him to contest the presidential election “even if he tendered primary school certificate.”

The submission of the panel was that Buhari’s failure or inability to attach his certificates to the Form CF001, which he tendered before INEC was not a ground to allege that he does not possess them.

Not even the statement made by former spokesman of Nigerian Army, Brigadier General Olajide Olaniyi, wherein he emphatically exonerated Nigerian Army from being in possession of Buhari’s original certificates, was strong enough to draw the panel’s attention.

The Tribunal also wondered how Brig. Gen. Olaniyi knew about the subjects Buhari enlisted and passed in his 1961 West African School Certificate if there was no credential in his Army file.

“The only reasonable inference is that the second respondent (Buhari) presented his WASC to the Army. It would be incredible to hold that he does not possess qualifications to contest for the office of the President,” stated Justice Mohammed Garba, who gave the lead judgment.

The allegation of perjury was further buried on the ground that Buhari finished both his primary and secondary school education in 1956 and 1961 respectively, before joining the Nigerian Army and that he attended military training between 1961 and 1963.

“It is established that a candidate is not required under the Electoral Act to attach his certificate to his Form CF001 before a candidate is adjudged to have the requisite qualification to contest the election.”

For the aggrieved members of PDP and some other Nigerians, the decision of the Tribunal was not only a displacement of justice but also, that which is likely to further undermine merit in a country that is almost crippled by the effects of mediocrity.

A Port Harcourt-based legal practitioner, Mr. Festus Oguche noted that though such rule is confined to electoral matters, there is fear of future misapplication by lower courts.

Another prominent lawyer, Jibrin Okutekpa (SAN) has gone on his social media platform to suggest a critical appraisal of the judgment with a view to possibly review some of the stands so as not to discourage parties who lose elections from subsequently seeking legal redress.

The Senior Advocate for instance, opposed the position of the Tribunal when it held that public documents even when duly certified must be tendered by the makers to carry evidential values.

According to the SAN, it was absolutely unnecessary to expect the maker of certified true copies of public documents to personally appear in court to make oral evidence.

Section 98 (1) (b) of the Evidence Act stipulates that: “A person seeking to prove the due execution of a document is not bound to call the party who executed the document.”

The Tribunal also dismissed PDP’s claim on the existence and engagement of a Central Server by INEC in transmission of results.

Insisting that the Manual provided by INEC did not provide for electronic transmission of results, Justice Garba added that petitioners’ claims cannot be countenanced because they lacked worth.

“Based on the available evidence, it is clear that the results were collated manually.

“The evidence and report of witness 59 of the petitioners (PW59) cannot be relied on to say that there was indeed INEC server or servers as the case may be, into which the results of the presidential election were transmitted.

“I have carefully examined and reexamined Exhibit 28 (INEC Manual for Election) tendered by the petitioners, I did not see where there is provision for electronic transmission of result of election.

“The petitioners have therefore failed to prove that the second respondent did not score a majority of lawful votes in the election,” The tribunal held.

Every other allegation of malpractice during the election was thrown overboard by the Tribunal.

Oguche, not completely comfortable with the judgment in its entirety, differed on the ground that rather than give issues the required scrutiny, the Tribunal resorted to making case for the second respondents by defending an affidavit deposed in court and which was not even supported by any evidence.

Oguche was more disturbed by the position of the Tribunal that one does not need to attach certificates to their forms. He stated that such pronouncement could send signals to other courts of lower cadre. “It was not proper”, Oguche stated.

Still on the issue of certificates, the lawyer said: “The army authority noted that the certificates are not in their file, which was enough evidence that he had no such certificates. These are serious issues. In other words, I see the court making case for the President.”

Adding: “The court also turned round and relied on the pleadings which the respondents had abandoned, stating that the respondents have been able to prove their pleadings on the bases of evidence deduced from cross-examination. I think it is very bizarre.”

On the allegation that the Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo induced electorate with Tradermoni, which was a very grave allegation, the court equally overlooked that simply because he was joined as a party in the petition.

“The law of electoral panel is to bring together all the evidence that tends to prove that the election was marred by malpractices. Even the allegations against the police and the army authorities, which were equally grave in nature were also overlooked.

“If it was shown to the Tribunal that their activities actually impeded against the exercise of the franchise of the people, the court should have looked at it rather than throwing it away simply because they were not joined as parties.

“Beyond that, main crux of complaints in the petition were not factored. Electoral adjudication has gone beyond the way we look at it now. It is no longer based on technicalities but on substantive issues.

“With that judgment, it is the court that now determines the will of the people because issues touching on the crux of the applications were discarded. There must be a radical departure from where our electoral system is at present,” he stated.

The Tribunal was also faulted for believing that because the petitioners only presented evidence of election irregularities from 11 focal states; it was a mere hearsay to allege that the election was not credible in other states.

“Even a single local government found to have irregularities can affect the overall results of the election and render the exercise a nullity,” the lawyer said.

So far, Atiku and his party are warming up to appeal he decision at the Supreme Court within the time frame allowed by law.

On the other hand, the respondents, confident that their victory will withstand the storm of the apex court, have agreed to meet their opponents in court.

President Buhari has been very pleased with the judgment. He has challenged the leadership of the party and APC state governors on the need to institutionalise the party to guarantee its survival beyond the end of his tenure in 2023. He said this when the leaders and governors visited the Villa to congratulate him on the Tribunal victory.

On his part, an elated national chairman, Adams Oshiomhole has challenged the PDP to go beyond the Supreme in its bid to appeal the Tribunal judgment, affirming that they will lose even at the World Court. He said: “the judgment was “eloquently and analytically” delivered to clear all doubts on the veracity of the president’s school credentials, saying “we never had any doubt. We were convinced of our victory.’’

In their Own submission, the Atiku Media Group is of the view that the denouement of the suit was as bemusing, as it was controversial, considering the grounds upon which the learned, three-man panel of judges of the Court of Appeal came to the conclusion that Atiku’s case was not only null and void, but was also otiose.

In a chat with newsmen after the judgment, it said: “A shocking statement from the hallowed sanctuary of the tribunal particularly touches on its volte-face on the vexed issue of card readers in the conduct of the presidential election. Atiku, as would be recalled, had complained in his petition that the card readers mysteriously became faulty in areas considered to be his power base. But in its ruling, the Tribunal stated thus:

“Card reader machine has not replaced the voter register. A petitioner must rely on the card reader to prove non-accreditation or over-voting.”

“If the tribunal ruled that the card reader had not replaced the voter register, why should it then emphasise on the need for the petitioner to rely on it to prove non-accreditation and over-voting? It’s as benumbing as it’s incongruous, it would seem.

“In tandem, the Tribunal held that the manual provided by INEC did not provide for electronic transmission of results, as a natural denunciation of the use of a server by the INEC, even though it becomes bewildering that the card reader, which is an electronic device, is expected to lose touch with the voter, once the vote is cast.”

The group is also of the view that tribunal would probably have erred in law to assert that the fact that Buhari attended a secondary school and also went to a higher school qualified him to contest for President, a scenario that has now been known as “Buhari is eminently qualified.” It noted thus:

“Buhari would have been qualified by mere showing that he had primary school education”, adding, “The courses attended by Buhari are higher than secondary school education.”

“In the first place, the tribunal, it would seem, was at pains determining if candidate Buhari possessed the minimum school leaving certificate to contest for a political office in Nigeria.

“Whereas Section 131 (d) of the Constitution prescribes a school-leaving certificate or its equivalent for anyone aspiring to a political office, the
Tribunal harped glibly on the attendance of secondary school and higher schools, by the President. Even at the university level, could it have been accepted that someone who spent four years in his course of study came out without obtaining a certificate? This, indubitably, is an issue for consideration.

“Though President Buhari, technically, won all his arguments on almost all grounds at the tribunal, the end of the suit is still to be determined by the Supreme Court, which is the highest temple of justice in the land.”

Atiku, it noted had filed a protest to the apex court, thus putting the country on yet a fresh edge, in the riveting case of who actually won the 2019 presidential elections.

However, the media group commended both President Buhari and former VP Atiku for the maturity displayed in being able to rein in their supporters to eschew violence while the suit lasted.

This, it noted, is an indication that democracy is gradually gaining some needed finesse in the Nigerian society, which was once reputed for widespread political violence in the aftermath of virtually every important election.

“It is the hope of Nigerians that the Supreme Court would discharge this all-important suit from its hallowed docket expeditiously, to actually prove to Nigerians that the opprobrium of ‘justice delayed, justice denied’ has no place in the country’s judicial parlance.

“Above all, it is also apposite, warning some public opinion moulders who are deliriously branded ‘Facebook rats’ on the social media, to show restraints in the manner they impugn the character of the party they loathe, in the ongoing suit. Casting aspersion on a particular candidate contesting their case in court or giving vent to cat-calling or taunting, can only be classified as a disservice to civility, under the circumstance.

Nigerians, we affirm, owe it a responsibility to pursue causes that will not in any way be injurious to national unity and the need to improve on the quality of democratic governance.”