By Tunde Olusunle
Controversies dogged the proceedings and the eventual judgment passed by the Presidential Elections Petitions Tribunal, (PEPT) on Wednesday September 6, 2023. The tribunal which was empanelled to interrogate the results of the election of February 25, 2023, stoked misgivings beginning from the cobbling together of the body. The five-man team of judges who served on the PEPT are: Haruna Tsammani, Stephen Adah, Monsurat Bolaji-Yusuf, Moses Ugo and Abba Mohammed, are all justices of the Court of Appeal of Nigeria. Dissatisfied with the declaration of Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress, (APC) as winner of that contest, candidates of five political parties which participated in the poll, challenged that proclamation at the PEPT. The sniggering manner with which the Independent National Electoral Commission, (INEC), pointed the way to the judiciary to disaffected candidates, smacked of latent treachery and predetermined mischief.
Nigeria’s former Vice President and banner-bearer of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, (PDP), Atiku Abubakar, led the way to the courts. He desired clinical, judicial interrogation into the very considerably fuzzy and opaque conduct of the election and subsequent premature proclamation of the APC candidate as winner. Former governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi who represented the Labour Party, (LP) as well as the little known Chichi Ojei who ran on the platform of the Allied Peoples’ Movement, (APM), equally resorted to the courts. Solomon Okangbuan of the Action Alliance, (AA) and the candidate of the Action Peoples’ Party, (APP), were also litigants. Atiku is reputed to be a tireless, long distance interrogator of process and rule of law. He said this much when he addressed the world press day after the judgment.
His words: “The journey of my political career as you know, owes so much to the courage and fearlessness of our judiciary… I’m no stranger to legal battles and I can say I have a fair idea how the court system works. All through my career as politician, I have been a fighter and I must say that I have found the judiciary a worthy pillar to rest on in the pursuit of justice.” Atiku is never wearied seeking judicial perspectives to brazen constitutional shenanigans and electoral aberrations. Ours sadly, has become a country where brazen impunity and mind-boggling lawlessness walk on all fours, defining governance and statecraft.
Beginning from the teething days of the commencement of sittings of the PEPT, there were insinuations about the possible compromise of the process even before it got underway. Tajudeen Olukayode Ariwoola, Chief Justice of Nigeria, (CJN), was rumoured to have had a clandestine meeting with Tinubu in Europe in the early life of the tribunal. Tinubu it was alleged attempted to enlist the former into the preservation of his “mandate” at the jury. In March this year specifically, Tinubu was in France for his medicals. Ariwoola was in England for similar reasons, simultaneously. The president-in-waiting as Tinubu then was, left Paris for London during Ariwoola’s short visit. This situation threw up concerns and conjectures. Media handlers of the CJN speedily poured cold water on such a possibility, ascribing it to unnecessary mudslinging.
There was no letting up on the prospects of a Tinubu and Ariwoola interface on the subsisting issues in court as a similar story rent the air last July. Tinubu, it was proposed, had a telephone conversation with Ariwoola over the hearings at the PEPT. Festus Akande, director of information of the Supreme Court the nation’s apex court, denied any such communication between the President and the CJN. Amidst the insinuations and denials, Tinubu reportedly approved a whopping N35 Billion “palliative” to the National Judicial Council, (NJC), which is headed by the CJN. The unsolicited largesse was construed as the conclusive sealant of the “deal” between Tinubu and Ariwoola. The presidency and the apex court attempted to douse the wild fires of this possibility.
Early August, the name of Babatunde Fashola, SAN, immediate past minister for works and housing resonated as the alleged “draftsman” of the judgment to be delivered by the Tsammani-led presidential election petitions tribunal. Fashola is one of the star boys of the Tinubu political dynasty who succeeded his mentor as governor of Lagos State in 2007. It was alleged that Fashola was head of a team of lawyers which supposedly included Babatunde Ogala, SAN, which did the simulation of the project. Hakeem Bello, Fashola’s media adviser spontaneously refuted the allegation. He described it as “baseless and defamatory,” while labelling the purveyors of the claim “as agents of destabilisation.” Fashola would proceed to write to the Inspector General of Police, (IGP), Kayode Egbetokun, to investigate the allegations.
The security cordon woven around the federal capital territory on the eve of the delivery of judgment on September 6, 2023, suggested government’s paranoia about a possible breakdown of law and order. Tsammani and company delivered perhaps the bulkiest judgment in the annals of Nigeria’s jurisprudence. It was just two pages short of 800! The drudgery of a judgment took a record 13 dreary hours, as the judges passed the relay baton of its reading from one to another. Cameras covering the ruling regularly picked up attorneys and attendees at the adjudication sleeping and snoring through the courtroom boredom! Intermittent stutters by the judges in the course of the ruling seemed to suggest third party authorship which the jurists attempted to domesticate.
Curiously, Tsammani and his colleagues dismissed and discarded each and every plea and prayer of all the litigants, individually and collectively! The jury practically transmogrified into defendants of the APC and its candidate, a veritable backup for the defendant’s legal team led by Wole Olanipekun, SAN. The PEPT repeatedly proffered alibis and justifications every step of the way, on the latter’s behalf. The tribunal unwittingly assisted INEC in many instances, to unmake its own rules and regulations. One wonders how INEC’s Mahmood Yakubu, Mike Igini and Festus Okoye, who spent so much time reassuring Nigerians about the inviolability of the Bimodal Voter Accreditation System, (BVAS) and electronic transmission of results, would have felt listening to the tedious judgment.
It emerged in the spin mills later in the night of the very same September 6, 2023, that the judges were reportedly spirited straightaway from the venue of the judgment to the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, (NAIA)! They were said to have been flown to Paris, France the same night, where they were duly “remunerated” for a job well done. The jurists according to accounts, have presumably, since been handed their lucre which reportedly runs into seven digits in United States Dollars, (USD). They are said, however, to be confronted by a pleasant problem now: Where to safely warehouse their humongous haul without traces and linkages to themselves. Reportedly, the judges are still out there in Europe under the guise of savouring the global judicial holiday, weighing up the options.
Nigerian jurists have in recent history been associated with sleazy liaisons with members of the political class. Such cavorting culminated in midnight raids on the homes of a few such judicial officers by the secret police, as recently as 2016. Early 2019, former CJN Walter Onnoghen was framed for unsubstantiated carousing with politicians in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election. He was forced out of office. The 2016 episode involving the judges, inspired a poetic classic by the iconic poet Niyi Osundare titled: “My Lord Tell Me Where to Keep Your Bribe.” Jaymz Boanerges in a 2019 review of the poem describes it as a “satirical reaction to the shocking discovery of the complicity of some Nigerian judges in corruption, in October 2016.”
Judges are principal agents of the judiciary which is believed to be the last hope of the common man. Jurists therefore are expected to be above board, unbiased, fair and just in the discharge of their duties. Boanerges contends that Nigerians were astonished about newspaper stories “reporting allegations of corruption, particularly with evidence-based reports of illicit domiciliation of huge amounts of ill-gotten by some judges.” According to him “money in hard and local currencies were found in rooftops and other ridiculous non-banking facilities where they were hidden by judges.” Against such a backdrop, it is unsurprising that a popular slogan in Nigeria’s media in recent weeks has been the “eyes on the judiciary” refrain. With the sickening failure of notable public institutions including the nation’s electoral umpire, it was envisaged that the judiciary would restore the hopes and faith of the common man.
Atiku noted in his interface with the media under reference that “the decision of the court of first instance, the PEPT, falls far short of the expectation of fair hearing.” Nigeria’s revered Afrobeat musician, the evergreen Fela Anikulapo-Kuti never pulled punches in his denunciation of successive Nigerian governments, military or civilian. His post-1983 elections classic, “Democracy,” describes the conduct and outcomes of the 1979 and 1983 general elections in Nigeria as archetypal baba’nla nonsense. This translates as a mega-haul of gibberish. Sadly, the electoral process 40 years after the 1983 polls under reference, has looked despairingly southwards.
According to Atiku: “Much as the judgment of the court yesterday (September 6) is respected, it is a judgment I refuse to accept. I refuse to accept the judgment because I believe it is bereft of substantial justice. My disappointment in the verdict of the court, however, can never destroy my confidence in the judiciary.” Atiku has requested his attorneys to activate his constitutionally guaranteed rights of appeal to the higher court which in this instance is the Supreme Court. Atiku has previously chalked up victories and triumphs in many of his earlier contestations in the defence of constitutional democracy, in the Supreme Court. In the present instance, he is loaded with more than enough substance to reenact those successes.
▪︎ Olusunle, PhD, poet, journalist, scholar and author, is a Member of the Nigerian Guild of Editors, (NGE)