By Yemi Oyeyemi, Abuja
There is a feeling celebrations in the air in the Presidential Villa as operatives there heaved a sigh of relief over the temporary victory President Muhammadu Buhari secured when the Presidential Election and Petition Tribunal told contender, Atiku Abubakar, that he could not , for now, inspect the controversial Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC).
Justice Mohammed Garba, Chairman of the panel held that granting such application at this interlocutory stage would preempt the substantive petition.
But the Presidency, known to have been jittery over the server issue and the mileage it has suffered in the court of public opinion, is having a dance party.
One of its spokespersons, Mr. Garba Shehu put it this way: “In a landmark ruling by the Presidential Election Tribunal, a desperate attempt by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) to overreach judicial process was overwhelmingly rejected by a unanimous decision and the long standing principle of law has once again been re-enacted.
“An attempt to cause the determination of an issue that constitutes the fulcrum of contention between the parties, at an interlocutory stage, has again been rejected by the tribunal.
“What this means is that Justice and fair hearing through due contest by the parties of a major issue for determination remains sacrosanct and remains considerable by the tribunal upon according parties just and fair hearing and not the other way round.
“The election petitions tribunal unanimously rejected the PDP’s request to inspect a server which existence is being disputed.
“The existence of a purported server is being contested and if a purported inspection had been allowed at this stage, it would have amounted to the determination that it indeed existed even when its existence is being contested.
“The electoral law prescribes manual transmission of results only and this was what the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) did, in obedience to the law as witnessed by real electoral observers.
“YIAGA Africa deployed 3906 real individuals to run a parallel tabulation which returned the same results the INEC announced.
“Last week, the final reports of the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute (IRI/NDI) electoral observer mission made clear that the results of the election reflected the votes cast.
“President Muhammadu Buhari won with a majority of four million votes and because only real votes matter, INEC announced him as the winner of the 2019 presidential election.”
The tribunal declined access to inspect the server and data of smart card reader said to have been deployed by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) in the conduct of the February 23 presidential election.
Garba, in a ruling held that granting of the application would imply that the court have delved into and resolved the contentious issue of the existence of a central server at INEC.
The chairman added that doing so would further create the impression that the tribunal has concluded that there is a central server where results of the February 23 election were received and stored.
The tribunal had on June 13 reserved ruling in the application filed by Atiku and PDP on May 8, for access to inspect INEC’s central server and smart card reader allegedly used in the conduct of the February 23 presidential election.
However the tribunal in a unanimous decision refused to grant the application on the grounds that since parties have joined issues, the tribunal cannot at the interlocutory stage make an order that would affect the substantive issue.
“I decline to grant the relieve sought, this application is refused and accordingly dismissed”, Justice Garba held.
Meanwhile, lead counsel to the petitioners, Chief Chris Uche SAN, said the decision of the tribunal would be challenged at the Supreme Court, adding that section 151 of the Electoral Act allows them to inspect materials used by INEC for the election.
He pointed out that the nation is looking forward to the ruling of the tribunal on the petitioners application seeking to Inspect the electoral materials, which he noted is pivotal, Uche said granting the application would in no way prejudice the substantive matter.
INEC, he said, is a public institution and had mentioned having a central server and wondered why it turned around to say it has no server. “We are not asking the court to decide whether there is a server or not, so the aspect of the court prejudging in the issue doesn’t arise at all. All we are saying is that the court should allow us access to inspect the materials which we are entitled to as INEC is a public institution funded by public funds.
“So we are going to challenge that”.
Chief Mike Ozekhome SAN, one of the counsel to the petitioners, also reacting said “INEC chairman himself, Professor Mahmoud Yakubu has maintained again and again before and during the election that there is a central server, that results were going to be electronically transmitted to that central server. And all the Electoral Commissioners maintained that the stage we are in now is a technological stage where things would not be done manually and anything not done with the PVC which results would be transmitted electronically to the central server would not be valid.
“What the court have said today is like more or less that you don’t have the right under section 151 of the Electoral Act to maintain your petition, but we didn’t ask for details, we didn’t ask for content, all we asked for is to allow us access.
“So it is not an issue
“We are appealing the decision because it is like trying your hands behind your back and expecting you to fight. We are appealing the decision because we want to know what is in the central server that they are hiding”.
He added that the public is also interested because budget was made for procurement of the central server in billions and it was approved by the National Assembly and it was disbursed. “And INEC said they have done all that. So where is the money, what is there that they are hiding”.
“This is not just a case between Atiku and Buhari, it is a case that have generated Public interest for electoral transparency, credibility and freedom”.