The Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal will today start hearing opposition petitions challenging the victory of the President-elect, Bola Tinubu, in the February 25 presidential elections.
Tinubu, from the ruling All Progressives Congress, had defeated his closest rivals, Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party and Labour Party’s Peter Obi, who alleged fraud and had launched a court challenge.
The hearing will be before the Court of Appeal judges, who constitute the tribunal.
The court had stopped receiving replies from the petitioners on April 23.
Under Nigeria’s electoral laws, the first day of hearing will see candidates’ lawyers agree on the witnesses and evidence to be used during the proceedings.
There have been numerous legal challenges to the outcome of previous Nigerian presidential elections but none has succeeded.
Understandably however, supporters of the three big political parties, APC, PDP and LP, are already looking beyond the likely outcomes of the trial of the petitions at the Court of Appeal, and having their eyes on the Supreme Court of Nigeria, which is also the highest court in the land.
Historically, no Court of Appeal Tribunal on presidential election has ever overturned the winner of any presidential election and the Supreme Court has also never disputed the positions of the intermediate court.
The closest the apex court had come, was sealing the victory of now-late President Umaru Yar’Adua in the 2007 presidential contest against incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and then-candidate of the All Nigeria Peoples Party, with a narrow majority of 4-3.
In the historic split among the seven-man panel of the Supreme Court that handled ANPP’s appeal against the judgement of the Court of Appeal putting a judicial seal on Yar’Adua’s election, the three who nullified Yar’Adua’s election and awarded victory to Buhari, held that ANPP and its candidate, proved beyond reasonable doubt that the election was deeply flawed and should not stand.
The three dissenting Justices, now retired, were Maryam Aloma Mukhtar, George Oguntade and Walter Onnoghen, with both Mukhtar and Onnoghen, ending their careers as Chief Justice of the country.
Oguntade, who read the lead minority judgement held that the failure of INEC to handle the ballot papers as required, proved the election was tampered with.
Like the just-concluded poll, international observers had heavily knocked the 2007 poll.
“There have been numerous legal challenges to the outcome of previous Nigerian presidential elections but none has succeeded”
Yar’Adua was credited with 24.6 million votes in the election.
Sixteen years after that damning verdict from around the globe, another stinging rebuke was delivered by the international community to INEC on the conduct of the 2023 poll.
Precedents have shown that the membership of the presidential election appeal panel of the Supreme Court is always according to seniority, except on rare occasions when a senior would have to give way for a junior. The practice is so obvious that names of the seven most senior justices of the court are already being circulated in public domain and on social media.
The selection process is also not expected to be different this time.
By convention, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Kayode Ariwoola, is expected to head the panel, with six others according to seniority, joining him.
The other six, expected to sit with him, are Justices Musa Dattijo Muhammed, the most senior and deputy chairman of the National Judicial Council, Olatokunbo Kekere-Ekun, the incoming CJN when Ariwoola leaves next year, if the succession-by-seniority arrangement is retained, John Inyang Okoro, expected to lead the court when Kekere-Ekun is done in 2028, Chima Centus Nweze and Amina Adamu-Augie.
With Adamu-Augie retiring on September 3, of this year, her immediate junior on the Bench and another female, Uwani Musa Abba Aji, might be asked to step in, as a replacement, considering that the disputes might be drawn out.
The number eight on the seniority list, Justice M.L Garba, is an experienced election petition jurist, who led the Court of Appeal panel that handed the incumbent president, Buhari a controversial win against Atiku Abubakar in the dispute arising from the 2019 poll.
Garba may likely come into the panel if the approaching retirement of Dattijo is also put into consideration. The most senior Justice is retiring on October 27, 2023.
The participation of the CJN is also in doubt with the camp of Atiku of PDP likely to kick against his involvement on the ground of “manifest bias”.
Ariwoola ran into a storm last year when he made a statement, suggesting he was supporting a breakaway faction of PDP, which eventually pitched its tent with Tinubu.
Practically all the potential nominees to the panel of the apex court, have a history of sitting on panels that sacked incumbents, especially governors, when the Court of Appeal was the final court on governorship poll.
Recent history also shows that the CJN was a member of the seven-man panel, led by his predecessor-in-office, Tanko Muhammad, that delivered the controversial judgement of the court, sacking Emeka Ihedioha of the PDP as Imo State governor and replacing him with Hope Uzodimma of the APC on January 14, 2020.
Also involved in the judgement was Kekere-Ekun who read the lead judgement.
When the Court of Appeal still held sway on governorship disputes, Dattijo chaired the 2010 messy Sokoto Governorship Election Appeal panel that ended up fragmenting the Nigerian judiciary and culminating in the premature exit of a former President of the Court of Appeal, Ayo Salami.
He led the panel that faulted the Buhari administration on Naira redesign policy.
Nweze is possibly still reeling from the criticism that trailed the judgement of a panel of the apex court he led, clearing the senate president, Ahmad Lawan to run for re-election without participating in the primaries. Lawan eventually retained the seat, but the Nweze’s panel was widely panned.
It is also on record that Nweze was a member of the Court of Appeal panel that removed Olagunsoye Oyinlola as the governor of Osun State and enthroned now-ex governor and current Interior Minister, Rauf Aregbesola. The panel cancelled results of 10 local governments where Aregbesola of now-defunct Action Congress, according to the panel, was able to prove over-voting, ballot-stuffing, failure to announce result at polling centres and intimidation of voters by thugs, linked to Oyinlola’s PDP.
Another member of that panel, now in the Supreme Court and likely to participate in the presidential dispute appeals, is M.L Garba.
Justice Adamu Jauro, a justice of the apex court, was also on the Oyinlola/Aregbesola appeal panel, but he is still a junior and a long shot for the 2023 presidential election trial.
In removing Segun Oni as the governor of Ekiti State on October 15, 2010, paving the way for the enthronement of Kayode Fayemi as the governor, Abba-Aji, as a member of the Court of Appeal panel, joined others in cancelling votes in areas where Oni had scored more votes, citing proven irregularities.
Similar scenario played out in handing over Edo State to then-Action Congress and its candidate in the 2007 poll; Adams Oshiomhole.
The Court of Appeal, in a panel headed by now-retired PCA, Umaru Abdullahi sacked PDP’s Professor Oserheimen Osunbor as governor and directed INEC to issue Oshiomhole Certificate of Return as the lawful governor-elect.
The only serving member of that panel is Amina Augie.
As the eminent jurists begin their work, we implore them to be impartial and be ready for history.
We also urge the aggrieved parties to respect the sanctity of the court and humbly accept its decision in the coming days as final.