Soon after the result of the February 23, 2019, presidential election was declared, my position was that the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, should not be dissuaded from challenging the outcome in court, since he felt strongly that it did not reflect the wishes of voters. It was my view that, instead of jumping to the conclusion that nothing good would come out of a presidential election petition, for the opposition, because of what had transpired in the past, the PDP candidate should present his case to the court and test the judiciary.
Atiku did go to the tribunal. The things in contention were: That President Buhari was not qualified to contest the election when he did because, according to Atiku and the PDP, he did not possess/present the West African School Certificate (WASC) he claimed to have, as required by law; that, based on the figures the petitioners got from the server of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), President Buhari did not score the highest number of valid votes in the election; that there were cancellations and deduction of votes to ensure that President Buhari won the election; that Atiku polled the highest number of valid votes and, therefore, should be declared winner of the election.
Atiku prayed that, if the tribunal declared him winner, he should be issued a certificate of return. In the alternative, he prayed the tribunal to nullify the presidential election and order a fresh poll.
In their responses to Atiku’s petition, President Buhari and INEC entered defences. The INEC argued that it had no server and never transmitted presidential election result electronically. The INEC insisted that the result it announced, declaring President Buhari winner, was valid. President Buhari, on his part, called three witnesses to prove that he had the required qualification to contest the presidential election.
The five justices at the tribunal sieved through the evidence submitted by the petitioners and respondents and delivered a verdict. They dismissed Atiku’s petition and, therefore, affirmed President Buhari’s victory. The justices have done what they considered as justice. They showed unanimity and depth. They proved that the job of judges is not a tea party, as litigants may think. Judges’ responsibilities take sound intellect, good understanding of the law, research, logic and courage. In determining the objections to the applications in the Atiku case, and in the final determination of the case, for instance, the judges cited previous authorities to back up their positions. They agreed that a candidate’s qualification for election was an issue. They debunked insinuations that the lead counsel to Atiku, Levi Uzoukwu, was not a registered lawyer in Nigeria. They dismissed INEC’s application for the dismissal of Atiku’s case on the grounds that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was not listed as respondent. They rejected the application that Osinbajo induced voters with government funds, in the TraderMoni project, allegedly not appropriated, as they would not dabble into a matter concerning how government funds were spent. They ruled that the use of the smart card was a component of the election process.
Just as the justices were unanimous in their positions on the preliminary objections, they also stood together in the substantive case. Justice Mohammed Garba, in the lead judgment, ruled that President Buhari was eminently qualified to contest for election as President, even when he did not submit his school certificate. He ruled that there was no provision, in law, for electronic transmission of results. He declined to cancel election in any polling unit, add or deduct votes, as, according to him, that was not the work of the tribunal. His colleagues agreed. This nailed the coffin of Atiku’s petition.
The tribunal may have, to the best of the ability of the justices, dispensed justice on the outcome of the presidential election, but questions remain. I believe the justices stand on solid ground about electronic transmission of results. No law, for now, backs such endeavour. However, the argument on President Buhari’s school certificate is rather odd. The law says that the school certificate, which is the minimum requirement for a candidate to qualify for participation, should be provided/attached with the form. President Buhari did not do this. That, to me, is a breach. If it were school admission, without showing his certificate, President Buhari would not be enrolled. During admission into the university, for instance, claims are made while filling forms but the schools still have panels that verify the results by physically sighting them. Schools also go further to verify the certificates by contacting the other schools or examination bodies that issued them. This means that it is not enough to claim an educational qualification. It is important to show evidence, which is verified.
I do not agree with the justices that even if President Buhari had a primary school certificate, he was still qualified to contest election for the position of President, because of other courses he had attended in the army or the position he had occupied. I beg to disagree. The law says school certificate must be possessed and presented. What the justices want us to believe is that, if a man falsifies a school certificate, for example, uses such document to get admission into the university and consequently obtains bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees, the higher educational attainments would stand when the fraud is discovered, simply because he obtained them. This is not true. In a situation like this, the bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees would be null and void because the school certificate, which is the foundation for other attainments, is false. This is why universities cancel certificates earlier awarded to former students whenever they discover that the Ordinary Level (O’ Level) results are wrong/false. Making a claim and swearing to an affidavit on it do not make the claim true, no matter what the presidential election petition tribunal thinks.
In my opinion, what the justices did was to use technicalities, which is “small details of a set of rules, as contrasted with the intent or purpose of the rules,” to decide the petition against President Buhari’s electoral victory. It was at best a judgment meant to keep the status quo in a very convenient way, partly because of the limitation of laws on elections. The government in power laid the foundation for this kind of outcome by refusing to take action on electoral reforms. President Buhari refused to assent to the Electoral Act amendment bill, which would have made it possible for the electronic transmission of results. Were the amendment bill signed into law and results transmitted electronically, whatever votes candidates got would have been so transmitted. There would not have been room for alteration or mutilation of results, for the benefit of a candidate. The winner would have been clear, ab nitio.
Atiku and the PDP have given notice of their intention to appeal at the Supreme Court. They should further pursue their case. As the case continues, the judiciary will continue to be on trial, as Nigerians await the apex court’s final verdict in days to come.