Godwin Tsa, Abuja
The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, has disqualified herself as a member of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal.
She announced her decision yesterday shortly after the tribunal had thrown out an application by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, seeking her disqualification from the panel on account of alleged likelihood of bias leveled against her.
The five-man panel in a unanimous ruling dismissed the application. But Bulkachuwa said she was withdrawing for “personal reasons.”
Justice Olabisi Ige, who read the lead ruling of the panel, held that the relationship between Justice Bulkachuwa and her husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, who is a senator-elect, and her son, Aliyu Abubakar, a governorship aspirant, both on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was not weighty enough to infer that she would be biased in her handling of the proceedings of the panel.
Ige also ruled that no inference of likelihood of bias could be inferred from the speech delivered by Bulkachuwa at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal on May 8 that she had pre-judged the petitioners’ petition.
All the members of the panel, including Bulkachuwa, agreed with the lead ruling.
But replying on point of law, counsel to the petitioners, Dr. Uzuokwu, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), argued that none of the respondents disputed the allegation that Bulkachuwa was connected to key members of the APC, which is the third respondent in the matter. After it had heard all the parties, the panel said it would reconvene by 2pm to deliver its ruling.
The PDP and Atiku had on May 15, secured leave of the tribunal to file a formal application to ask Bulkachuwa to recuse herself from the panel. In a 19-paragraph affidavit subsequently filed, the petitioners said they were not comfortable that Bulkachuwa, who they described as “a wife and mother of card carrying members of the All Progressives Congress” nominated herself to head the panel. The petitioners argued that there are over 80 justices in the Court of Appeal that could effectively head the panel. PDP noted that Bulkachuwa had at the inaugural session of the tribunal, while delivering her inaugural speech, stated as follows: “Elections are held in Nigeria every four years into elective positions. No matter how well the election is conducted, there are bound to be complaints…”
According to the petitioners, by making that remark, it would appear that Bulkachuwa had already prejudged the presidential election as well conducted and that the petition is one of the complaints that come up “no matter how well the election is conducted.”
Meanwhile, President Muhammadu Buhari has declared that he lacked the constitutional powers to decide those to be appointed into any judicial panel or tribunal.
While stressing that such interference would amount to a gross abuse of the doctrine of separation of powers, Buhari told the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal that he had never interfered with the constitution of any tribunal, “whether the panel is adjudicating on election petitions relating to the office of President, Governor, National or State Assembly, or sitting in any civil or criminal matter howsoever.”
He further declared that since his emergence to power, he has refrained from dabbling into the membership of any judicial panel.
Buhari whose election is being challenged at the tribunal said he was not aware that the biological son of the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, Aliyu Haidar Abubakar, campaigned for his re-election.
He was responding to a motion filed by the presidential candidate of the People Democratic Party (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, urging the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Bulkachuwa to step aside as chairman of the election petition panel.
Buhari, in his written submissions to the said motion and supporting affidavit, said he only became aware that Abubakar was his supporter after he read a copy of the motion the PDP and Atiku filed to disqualify Bulkachuwa from presiding over the five-man panel tribunal that is hearing petitions challenging the declaration that he won the February 23 presidential election.
Buhari further told the tribunal that
his attention was further drawn to exhibits that contained newspaper cuttings, indicating that Bulkachuwa’s son canvassed for votes in his favour.
The president, however, insisted that the petitioners failed to prove that Bulkachuwa had in any way exhibited any form of bias against them since the petition was entered before the tribunal.
The counter affidavit was deposed to by Kolawole Andrew Aro.
Buhari submitted through his lead counsel, Wole Olanikpekun (SAN), that the issue raised in the motion is entirely “within the prerogative and discretion of the honourable President of the Court of Appeal.”
He added: “What is to be taken into consideration in coming to one decision or the other in respect of the application is also within the exclusive discretion of the honourable President.
“This is not a decision that can be dictated to her by either the petitioners or respondent or any of their counsel.
“When it comes to matter of discretion, the judge or justice involved is the sole determinant.
“The honourable President of the Court of Appeal had not displayed any bias in favour of any or the parties, particularly the respondent.
“For the respondent, it has no reason whatsoever to complain about any of the justices sitting on the panel or any Justices of Court of Appeal for that matter.
“May we submit that from the totality of the petitioners’ processes, we notice that the petitioners do not deny the truism as provided by the constitution, regarding the prerogative of the President of the Court of Appeal, to constitute this panel.
“In other words, it is still within the constitutional prerogative of the same President to either decided whether to recuse herself and if he does, to nominate or appoint a replacement or to leave the panel of four, having regard to the clear provision of section 239(1) (a) of the constitution.”
In it’s response, the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, which is the 1st Respondent in the matter, through its team of lawyers comprising five SANs led by Mr. Yunuz Uztaz, urged the tribunal to dismiss Atiku and PDP’s motion, contending that it was in breach of section 42 of the 1999 constitution, as amended.
INEC argued that the motion was discriminatory in the sense that it sought to disqualify Bulkachuwa on the basis that she was married to a politician. Noting that many male judicial officers are equally married to politicians, INEC maintained that granting the instant application would set a very dangerous precedent.
Similarly, the APC, through its team of nine SANs, led by Prince Lateef Fagbemi, accused the PDP and Atiku of engaging in “cheap blackmail.”