On Wednesday, September 11, 2019, the quest by the presidential candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, to upturn the election of President Muhammadu Buhari hit the rocks. In a unanimous judgment, the five-man panel of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) dismissed Atiku’s petition and affirmed the victory of President Buhari in the February 23, 2019, election.
In the lead judgment, Justice Mohammed Garba declared that the petition of Alhaji Atiku and his party, the PDP, lacked merit. He, therefore, resolved all the issues raised in the petition in favour of President Buhari. The other members of the panel – Justices Abdul Aboki, Joseph Ikyegh, Samuel Oseji, and Peter Ige — agreed with him.
Atiku’s claims were that the election was marred by irregularities: misuse of scarce resources, manipulation of result sheets, over-voting, wrongful recording of results, intimidation of voters, among others, in ’11 focal states;’ that he (Atiku) received more votes than President Buhari; and that the President did not have a secondary school certificate, a basic requirement to contest the election.
The tribunal ruled that the petitioners merely dumped documents on it and that none of the documents tendered was utilized to prove the allegations, such as over-voting. On whether or not the election was marred by corrupt practices and non-compliance with the provisions of the Electoral Act, the tribunal held that the allegations were criminal in nature and must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. The tribunal ruled that the petitioners failed to discharge the burden of proof that Buhari was not elected by a majority of lawful votes.
The tribunal also ruled that President Buhari was eminently qualified to contest the presidential election; Buhari’s certificate from the Nigerian military was higher than the secondary school certificate stated as a minimum academic requirement. Buhari’s affidavit on his school certificate was also enough proof that he was qualified to contest the election. The tribunal, therefore, exonerated the President on the allegation of giving false information to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) over his educational qualifications.
The tribunal discountenanced the evidence of the witnesses who claimed the existence of servers and that the results were electronically transmitted into servers. “Electronic voting or transmission of results has no statutory backing. The mode of voting and collation of results have not changed from being manual since 2015,” stated the tribunal. It is clear, said Justice Garba, that the results were collated manually. And taking all things together, he, therefore, concluded that “in the final result, I have come to the conclusion, which is inevitable and unavoidable, that the petitioners have not discharged the burden of proof required of any of the grounds of the petition…This petition is accordingly and hereby dismissed in its entirety.”
Nigerians should feel assured that the system is working as expected. An aggrieved candidate has petitioned seeking a judicial review of the results of an election. The justices having reviewed the evidence on both sides came down in favour of the President. That is the nature of judicial contests. A party must win. Again, the Presidential Election Petition tribunals have added a lot to Nigerian jurisprudence and will continue to do so.
The former vice-president, Alhaji Atiku, still has a chance, and he and his party, the PDP, have already appealed the PEPT judgment at the Supreme Court, the final arbiter. They are exercising their rights to appeal to the highest court of the land, as did their opponent, Buhari and his party, in the past. Reacting to the judgment, the National Chairman of the All Progressives Congress, Mr. Adams Oshiomhole, hailed the tribunal saying that even if the matter was taken to the “world court” Alhaji Atiku would still lose, a statement that raised eyebrows. How would he know? But while the APC chairman was triumphal, his principal, President Buhari, was confessing how jittery he was on the day of the tribunal verdict, and how he was almost having a nervous breakdown, which is a natural reaction for a man who has lost at the tribunal on at least three occasions.
Needless to say, there are many Nigerians, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, who think the tribunal’s verdict was delivered ‘per incuriam,’ who are looking up to the Supreme Court jurists with hope. This week, it is expected that Atiku and the PDP would file their appeal at the Supreme Court. The apex court will, therefore, in 90 days from the day the appeal is filed, examine the petition, give the final verdict and rest the case. It will determine whether the tribunal was right or wrong in its judgment.
In preparation for this, the Supreme Court will raise a seven-man panel that will determined the appeal. In constituting the panel, we believe that the Supreme Court will follow the tradition of appointing its senior justices into it. This is coming on the background that soon the Supreme Court may admit new justices following the request to the National Judicial Council (NJC) by President Buhai. At present, the justices of the Supreme Court, in their order of seniority, are: Ibrahim Tanko Muhammad, Chief Justice of Nigeria: Olabode Rhodes-Vivour; Nwali Sylvester Ngwuta; Mary Odili; Olukayode Ariwoola; Musa Dattijo Muhammad; Kumai Bayang Akaahs; Kudirat Motonmori Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun; John Inyang Okoro; Chima Centus Nweze; Amiru Sanusi; Amina Adamu Augie; Ejembi Eko; Paul Adamu Galinje; and Sidi Dauda Bage. Will the seven-man panel come from these 16 justices or will some of the new justices being considered for the Supreme Court make the panel?
The Supreme Court has the onerous task of looking at the case dispassionately and resolve the thorny issues the petitioners will raise as grounds of appeal. The justices of the Supreme Court, therefore, have a duty to dispense justice in the matter without fear or favour. The petition is not just about President Buhari and Atiku. It is about democracy, Nigeria and the future of Nigeria. Nigeria, as a nation and Nigerians as a people need justice in the presidential election petition. The virtue of the judicial review of our elections is that the disputations are safely resolved in the courts of law and not as violence in our streets. Nigerians, in spite of occasional disappointments and frustrations with the courts, want to have faith in our justice system as the judges and justices do the right thing.