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Tackling The Presidential Tribunal Legal Technicalities by Babatunde Ayankunle.

Events at the ongoing Presidential Election Petition Tribunal have again thrown up the foibles of Nigeria legal system. Like in many cases, where lawyers and their clients try to bore down the legal process, the legal team of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, appear to have a trick up their sleeves to ridicule the whole process. 

Having keenly watched the whole scenario from day one, I surmise that if some things are not quickly addressed, a blame game will soon surface that the presidency or Buhari (as is usually the case these days of the opposition) is circumventing the process. I’m neither in the legal team of any of the parties to the presidential petition but I think posterity will not forgive me as a lawyer if I keep silent over the way lawyers on the Atiku side are working assiduously to slow down activities at the tribunal.

First, it was the request that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) should make available the materials used for the presidential election held on February 23, 2019 for inspection. The request was contained in an application filed by Chief Chris Uche (SAN) before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal at the Abuja Division of the Court of Appeal. Even when this was granted, the party’s propaganda machinery still flooded the media with the shout that their request was not granted. By this time, days were counting and the clock was ticking, but everybody pretended as if everything was fine.

Fast forward to when the tribunal was inaugurated and Nigerians were expecting a smooth legal process, the party and its candidate again asked the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, to recuse herself from presiding or sitting as a member of the Presidential Election Tribunal sitting over the petition filed by Atiku, who is contesting the declaration of President Muhammadu Buhari as winner of the February 23 polls.

The party premised its rejection of Justice Bulkachuwa’s membership of the tribunal on the ground that her husband is a Senator-elect from Bauchi State in the recent election on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC).

Even when many analysts had thought this would be a tall dream, it was shocking when a member of the Buhari legal team, Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), stood up at the sitting and urged the woman to consider the request in the interest of the eventful years she had put into her calling as a jurist.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a fact known to all the parties that the issue of a “server” for purposes of proving or contesting the outcome of an election in Nigeria is a non-starter, as there is no provision of such in Electoral Act to that effect. Recall that President Buhari refused to assent to the amendment of the law to allow the usage of server by INEC due to the fact that the entire country is yet to be covered by “networks.” Till date, except we want to play God or create tension in the land, internet penetration has not reached many parts despite our so-called digital revolution. With this, it will be an effort in futility to be talking about a “server” in a judicial contest as a Presidential Election Petition Tribunal when same is not provided for in our laws and even more when many parts of Nigeria have no access to internet.

At this point, one may be forced to believe a joke at the Tribunal from the petitioner’s lawyers that Atiku has been scammed by smart ‘Yahoo Yahoo boys’ who impressed it on the former vice president that central server actually existed.

Ask Mike Ozekhome, SAN (Atiku), Festus Keyamo, SAN (Buhari) & Kayode Ajulo (APC), who ought to traditionally speak out about this popular joke, but owing to the fact that they are all counsel to parties at the Tribunal these senior lawyers have decided to keep mute.

However, my position may be different. Since the outcome of the 1979 election petition, which was ruled in favour of Alhaji Shehu Sagari, the winner of the election, I have come to realise that it is against public policy to nullify a presidential election. In the cycle of legal practitioners, it is being debated till date that the panel that sat on Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s petition against Shagari knew that 12 was not the 2/3 of 19, but it was allowed to stand in the national interest. Knowing well that nullifying presidential result could lead to coup or breaking down of law and order, tribunals are always circumspect in taking decisions. Again, while I’m not saying this to talk Atiku out of his decision, I’m using my open appeal to prepare his mind against unfavourable outcome of his case and the need for him to calm the nerves of his followers in the interest of all. But as I have always maintained, the petition itself is a stillbirth and it should be called so!

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