Presidential Election Tribunal: Anxiety as Nigerians await judgement day

As the five Justices that heard the election petitions filed by the candidates of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and the Labour Party (LP), Mr. Peter Obi, at the presidential election petition tribunal, challenging the victory of President Bola Tinubu in the February 25 presidential election, prepare to deliver their ruling on the matter, Nigerians at home and in the Diaspora are filled with great expectations that the judges would rule based on the facts and figures presented before them and not based on technicalities or any other consideration.

Recall that the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) had on March 1, four days after the presidential election held on February 25, announced Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as the winner of the election and president-elect.

According to the INEC Chairman, Prof. Mahmood Yakubu, Tinubu polled 8,794,726 votes to beat Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), who came second with 6,984,520, and Peter Obi of the Labour Party (LP), who placed third with 6,101,533.

The INEC Chairman stressed that by that score, Tinubu had met the first constitutional requirement of garnering the highest votes among all the candidates. He said he also scored over 25 percent of the votes cast in 30 states, which are more than the 24 states that are constitutionally required.

With this declaration, many Nigerians felt that INEC had neglected a very important constitutional requirement, which states that a candidate must score 25 percent of the votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja, to be declared president of Nigeria.

From the INEC records, only the LP candidate, who came third, met that requirement. Tinubu and Atiku did not. But, INEC, in its own wisdom, did not consider that as enough reason to deny Tinubu the victory, having scored the highest number of votes cast in the election, and having scored 25 percent in more than 24 states of the federation.

However, that declaration did not go down well with the LP candidate and his counterpart in the PDP, as they felt that apart from the fact that Tinubu did not score 25 percent of the votes cast in the FCT as required by the constitution, the election was also marred by irregularities. They were of the view that Tinubu did not win and that INEC was wrong to have declared him as the winner.

And what followed was a legal action from both candidates at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT).

So, on March 21, 2023, Obi approached the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal with a petition to challenge Tinubu’s victory in the February 25 presidential election.

He alleged that the election was characterised by irregularities, ranging from rigging to manipulation of election results, intimidation and suppression of voters, destruction of ballot boxes and papers, and thuggery among others, including claims that Tinubu and his running mate, Kashim Shettima, were not qualified to contest the election in the first instance.

He also alleged that Tinubu did not score the majority of the lawful votes cast in the election, and did not get 25 percent of the votes cast in the FCT, Abuja, which is a constitutional requirement that must be met before one can be declared president of Nigeria. He equally alleged that the election was conducted in substantial non-compliance with the provisions of the law.

Obi’s first grounds of non-qualification was hinged on the claim that at the time of the presidential election, Tinubu was not qualified to contest the election because he was fined $460,000 for an offence involving narcotics trafficking imposed by the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division, in case N0:93C 4483 between the United States of America and Bola Tinubu.

According to Obi, the second ground of non-qualification was that Tinubu’s running mate, Kashim Shettima, had two nominations for two separate constituencies – as Borno Central senatorial candidate and as vice-presidential candidate in the same election cycle.

Obi equally contended that Tinubu was not duly elected by majority of the lawful votes cast in each of at least two-third of the states of the federation and the FCT, Abuja.

He submitted that Tinubu was not entitled to be declared the winner of the election having failed to score one-quarter of the lawful votes cast in the FCT in the election.

In his two main prayers, he urged the court to declare Tinubu and his running mate, Shettima, unqualified to contest the February 25 presidential election and that Tinubu did not score a majority of the lawful votes cast in the election.

He asked the court to declare that he satisfied the constitutional requirements to be declared the winner of the February 25, 2023 presidential election, after the deduction of alleged illegal votes from Tinubu’s scores.

In the second main prayer, he again urged the court to invalidate Tinubu’s victory due to his failure to win one-quarter of the lawful votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Abuja.

Obi’s third prayer, which was put forward as an alternative prayer, urged the court to cancel the election and order the INEC to conduct a fresh one.

In his fourth prayer, he repeated his claim that he won the election because he secured the majority of the lawful votes cast during the February 25 election.

He, therefore, urged the court to declare him the president-elect, and order the INEC to issue him a certificate of return. He also urged the court to void the certificate of return wrongly issued to Tinubu.

In the same vein, the PDP candidate, Atiku, also filed a petition on the same March 21, challenging Tinubu’s election. In his petition, Atiku asked the presidential election court to either declare him the winner of the February 25 presidential election or nullify the election and order a rerun.

To prove his case, he called 27 witnesses and tendered tons of electoral documents.

While closing his case, Atiku made some prayers, which include that Tinubu was not duly elected by a majority of lawful votes cast, and therefore his victory is unlawful, wrongful, unconstitutional, and should be voided; that at the time of the election, Tinubu was not qualified to contest the said election; that the return of Tinubu by the INEC was wrongful, unlawful, undue, null and void, having not satisfied the requirements of the Electoral Act and constitution, which mandatorily requires Tinubu to score not less than one quarter of the lawful votes cast at the election in each of at least two-thirds of all the states in the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, and that the court should declare him the winner as he scored the majority of lawful votes cast at the presidential election among others.

In the alternative, he also asked the court to direct the electoral body to conduct a second election (run-off) between him and Tinubu.

Having closed their cases, the respondents, in this case, the INEC, the APC, Tinubu and Shetima, asked the tribunal to give them one week to open their defence- a request the five-member panel presided over by Justice Haruna Tsammani granted and fixed July 3 for them to open their cases.

However, closing their defence, Tinubu and Shetima, alongside their party, the APC, through their lawyers led by Wole Olanipekun and Lateef Fagbemi tendered several documents, with only one witness to testify in aid of their counter-arguments against the issues raised by Atiku and Obi.

Counsels to Tinubu, Shetima and the APC, as well as that of the INEC countered all the arguments raised by the petitioners and prayed the court to dismiss the petitions.

For example, they argued that the issue of 25 percent of votes cast in the FCT is illogical as it goes against the express provision of the constitution.

“The FCT must be treated as if it were a State. We submit that the case for non-compliance has not been made, the FCT argument has to fall flat,” the lawyers argued, praying the court to dismiss the petition.

Meanwhile, Tinubu and his party, APC, also told the tribunal that should there be need for a run-off, LP’s Obi should not be part of it. Their argument is that Obi was not qualified to fly the LP’s flag in the election, by virtue of his name not contained in the membership register submitted to the INEC prior to the polls.

With the close of arguments by all the parties in the case on Tuesday, August 1, the over three months’ legal fireworks were dropped in the court of the five-man panel, who would give their judgement before September 16, when the suit is expected to elapse. The petitions were filed on March 21 but hearing in the substantive suits began in May, lasting for three months.

At the close of arguments, the respected Jurists had told the parties and Nigerians that the day of judgement would be communicated to them in due course.

However, as Nigerians await the verdict of the tribunal amid tension, anxiety and great expectations, discussions and opinions on the possible outcome have not ceased.

There are those who have expressed fear that whichever way the judgement goes, there could still be some pockets of protests.

Yet, there are those who have plainly and honestly advised the Judges to remain resolute, undaunted and fearless, and to pass their judgement based on the facts and figures presented before them, and not based on technicalities.

An APC chieftain and former member of the Katsina State House of Assembly, Hon Yusuf Shehu has refused to accept that the Judges are not capable of taking the right decisions.

He believes that the judges would live up to their bidding and surprise those who have lost faith in them. He is among those who advised that the Judges must look at the issues before them conscientiously and deliver judgement without fear or favour.

He said: “I have always maintained that justice is truth, transparency, honesty, and giving right to those who deserve it. So, I advise the judges handling all cases, not only the election petition cases, to be above board and do the right thing.

“They should listen to the doctrine of their vocation. I believe in the Nigerian judicial system and as I said earlier, justice is doing the right thing.”

He reminded the Judges that there is another judge that would judge them in the hereafter.

“Therefore, they have a great responsibility to do what is right without fear or favour, so that democracy can thrive in Nigeria.

“The Nigerian judges have done their best. We have commended them in so many instances, where they upturned elections in favour of the opposition and against the ruling party. They should continue on the same path now by looking at all the evidence before them as they pass their judgement.

“They should be able to make a decision that will be accepted by the majority of Nigerians and people of other countries who are watching us. That is the expectations of Nigerians from them,” he stated.

Again, president of the Middle Belt Forum (MBF), Dr. Pogu Bitrus, also believes that the judges would not cave in to pressures, knowing that the law is the final arbiter and last hope of the common man.

“Nigerians believe that all those injustices, abnormalities, and disregards for constitutionality that the INEC has done or committed would be exposed and judgement given appropriately and accordingly.

“Somebody walks in, changes results from the polling units, destroys result sheets and refuses to upload results and others, the laws of the nation are so clear on some of these things. And we believe that the Judges will do the needful. They will do the right thing and make a pronouncement that will save the nation because today, our hope is on them.

“The INEC has done the wrong thing and that is why we are in court. If the right thing was done and the right person declared after the right thing had been done, I believe some people will not even petition or go to court but they are in court because they believe that the wrong things were done by INEC,” he claimed.

He added: “Some people believe that the constitutional requirement for someone to be president was not there, yet the INEC pronounced somebody the president.

“They know the law requires that a candidate needs 25 percent votes in the FCT to be president; so, let us not deceive ourselves. Nigerians are expecting the right thing to be done by giving them the right judgement, and we believe that they will do the right thing.”

Mr. Marcellus Onah, a lawyer and public affairs commentator, believes that Nigerians are going through very difficult and tough times, and would not want the Judges to toy with their destiny. He believes that even the judges could read the political temperature of the country and would not do anything that could test the fragile peace in the country.

He also believes that the Judges would look at the facts before them and pass their judgement.

“Many people have lost faith in the judiciary, so this is a great opportunity for them to prove the naysayers wrong,” he stated.

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