The legal battle to overturn the election victory of the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, commenced on Monday with the Presidential Election Petitions Court promising to deliver justice ‘’for those deserving it.’’
The long-awaited pre-hearing proceeding, which was held at the Court of Appeal, Abuja, was presided over by Justice Haruna Tsammani, who gave the assurance that justice would be served dispassionately.
Other members of the five-man panel include Justice Stephen Adah of the Court of Appeal, Asaba Division, Justice Misitura Bolaji-Yusuf, Court of Appeal also of Asaba Division, Justice Boloukuoromo Ugoh of Kano Division and Justice Abba Mohammed of Ibadan Division of the Court of Appeal.
Addressing the petitioners and lawyers in the jam-packed courtroom, Tsammani, who is the Chief Registrar of the Court of Appeal, stated, “We are determined to look at the matter dispassionately and give justice to whoever deserves justice.”
He said they would consider the substance of each case over technicalities so that “whoever leaves here will be satisfied that justice has been done.”
He also warned the parties against unnecessary applications that could delay the proceedings.
The jurist stated, “Election matters are time-bound, let us not waste unnecessary time, let us cooperate with each other so that everyone will leave here satisfied.
“Avoid unnecessary technicalities; we are determined to look at all the matters brought before us. Let us look at what is good for our country and avoid time-wasting applications.”
The justice further sought the cooperation of lawyers, saying “Let us avoid making sensational comments or statements.”
Responding to the appeal by the court, the lead counsel to the president-elect, Wole Olanipekun, SAN, said the lawyers were ready to cooperate with the court.
“We are not unmindful of our responsibilities as members of the bar. I want to assure your Lordships of our unflinching support. Whatever the court wants to do to accelerate the matters, we are ready to give the court our support,’’ he pledged.
Similarly, the counsel to the Labour Party, Levy Uzoukwu, SAN, and Chris Uche, SAN, for the Peoples Democratic Party, pledged their support to the court.
Five political parties and their candidates are challenging the outcome of the February 25 presidential election on the grounds of non-compliance with the electoral laws as well as the guidelines of the Independent National Electoral Commission.
Dissatisfied with the declaration of the former Lagos State governor as the winner of the presidential election by the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, the candidates of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, the Peoples Democratic Party, Atiku Abubakar and three others dragged the commission, the APC and Tinubu to the PEPC.
After acknowledging the promised cooperation of the lawyers, the presiding judge announced that only the first three petitions would be considered during the pre-hearing while the 4th and 5th petitions “can take off tomorrow (today).’’
The petitions include CA/PEPC/01/2023 filed by the Action Alliance and its standard bearer, Solomon Okanigbuan; CA/PEPC/02/2023 lodged by the Action People’s Party as the sole petitioner; and CA/PEP/03/2023 by the LP and its presidential candidate, Obi.
Tsammani explained that the cases would be alternated until the pre-hearing comes to an end. “Then we will alternate until we finish the pre-hearing,” he further said.
The court subsequently adjourned for a few hours during which the LP standard bearer walked into the courtroom.
At the resumed sitting, the court dismissed the petition by the Action Alliance challenging Tinubu’s victory.
The court’s decision was a sequel to a motion moved by the petitioner’s lawyer, Oba Maduabuchi, SAN, which sought to withdraw the petition.
The petitioners had contended that their candidate, Okanigbuan, was excluded from the list uploaded on the portal of the INEC.
Lawyers to the respondents did not object to the withdrawal, following which Tsammani, in a ruling, dismissed the petition.
The petition had as respondents the INEC, the All Progressives Congress, Tinubu and Hamza Al-Mustapha.
There was, however, a mild drama during the announcement of appearances by the parties.
Okanigbuan was in court and the AA was represented by the chairman of the party, Adekunle Omo-Aje, but moves by the Plateau State Governor, Simon Lalong, to present himself as Tinubu’s representative was rejected by the court which ruled that he cannot represent Tinubu, but the APC.
There was also confusion as Maduabuchi and Malachi Umuebe both announced their appearance for the AA.
But maintaining his stance as the representative of the party, Maduabuchi sought the order of the court to withdraw the petition in its entirety which was granted.
Following the withdrawal and consequent dismissal of the AA’s petition, the court scheduled the pre-hearing of the petitions from the PDP and Allied Peoples Movement for Tuesday (today) while the petition of the Labour Party and its presidential candidate was adjourned to Wednesday.
The panel asked all the parties to identify the issues they would be objecting to before the next pre-hearing session.
It also fixed May 10 for pre-hearing in the petition of the Action Peoples Party challenging the February 25 presidential election.
The APP and its standard bearer, Simon Nnadi are asking the tribunal to disqualify the president-elect over alleged non-qualification to contest the election.
They argued that INEC failed to comply with the provision of the Electoral Act, 2023 by non-transmission of results, which robbed them of victory in the election, adding that the election was marred by corrupt practices with the election results compromised in nine states.
They also contended that the APC and Tinubu did not score the majority of lawful votes cast in the election, including the mandatory 25 per cent of the votes in the FCT.
Earlier, counsel to the APP, Obed Agu disclosed that he has filed a pre-hearing application for the APC and Tinubu to concede the election because of the weight of evidence at their disposal showing they didn’t win the election.
But lawyers to the APC and Tinubu, Lateef Fagbemi and Wole Olanipekun, informed the court that they would deal with the issues at the right time.
Meanwhile, Atiku and PDP have approached the PEPC seeking an order allowing live broadcast of the court proceedings.
In an application dated May 5, the applicants specifically prayed to the court for an order directing the court’s registry and the parties on modalities for the admission of media practitioners and their equipment into the courtroom.
The application filed by their team of lawyers led by Chris Uche was premised on the grounds that the matter before the court is a dispute over the outcome of the presidential election held on February 25 and therefore, a matter of national concern and public interest.
They also contended that being a unique electoral dispute with a peculiar constitutional dimension, it was a matter of public interest where millions of Nigerians were stakeholders with a constitutional right to watch the sitting.
They said, “An integral part of the constitutional duty of the court to hold proceedings in public is at discretion to allow public access to proceedings either physically or by electronic means.
“With the huge and tremendous technological advances and developments in Nigeria and beyond, including the current trend by this court towards embracing electronic procedures, virtual hearing and electronic filing, a departure from the rules to allow a regulated televising of the proceedings in this matter is in consonance with the maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done.
“Televising court proceedings is not alien to this court, and will enhance public confidence.”
No date has been fixed for hearing of the application.
The Nigerian Bar Association had made a similar call in a communiqué issued at the end of its National Executive Committee meeting in Birnin Kebbi on March 23.
The NBA had urged the judiciary to allow live broadcasts of the court hearings of election petitions, particularly the presidential election cases.
Also, a group, under the aegis of Leaders of Thoughts and Legal Icons, had endorsed the initiative.
The group had invited Nigerians to sign an appeal on an online platform in support of the initiative.
Human rights lawyer, Femi Falana, also backed calls for live broadcasts of election petition cases.
Speaking to journalists after the proceeding, Chris Uche, SAN, counsel for former vice president Atiku, expressed satisfaction with the commencement of the hearing.
“We are very happy that the sitting of the court has started with this inauguration. As you see, the court committed itself to cooperate and ensure that these petitions are expeditiously dealt with.
“And on our part, all the lawyers also committed themselves to cooperate with the court to make sure that these matters are dealt with urgently because of their national importance,’’ he said.
Commenting on his client’s application for live coverage of the sitting, the senior lawyer stated that the issue would be addressed during Tuesday’s sitting when the matter will be heard.
“We will talk about that tomorrow because our matter comes up tomorrow (today),” Uche stated.
On his part, counsel for Obi, Levy Uzoukwu affirmed his earlier submission that the outcome of the sitting will impact the country’s jurisprudence.
He noted, “Let me repeat: The decision rendered will impact Nigeria’s electoral jurisprudence and constitutionalism. It is very important that this is made known because one way or the other, I do not think that it is going to be business as usual as far as Nigeria’s electoral jurisprudence is concerned.”
He gave an assurance that everyone would work together to ensure that the matter is heard expeditiously.
In a related development, commuters in the FCT had a hectic time on Monday following the heightened security around the Court of Appeal premises ahead of the proceedings.
The security personnel had barricaded all the access roads to the court complex located within the Three Arms Zone, paralyzing traffic and causing a serious gridlock for hours.