The Presidential Election Petition Tribunal Wednesday formally kicked off on a protest note with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Atiku Abubakar asking the chairman of the panel, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa to disqualify herself from the tribunal over possible bias.
Bulkachuwa, president Court of Appeal, chairs the five-man presidential election petition tribunal hearing the complaints arising from the conduct of the 2019 presidential poll.
The panel had fixed Wednesday to begin pre-hearing session on petition filed by the PDP and Abubakar.
However, shortly after admitting the application of the Coalition for Change which said it could not serve its process on the All Progressives Congress (APC), after which the court went on recess.
And on returning from the recess, PDP counsel, Levy Uzoukwu, SAN, requested for a 10-minute interaction with members of the panel in chamber, a prayer that was granted with a caveat that counsel to other parties should also be part of the meeting.
Rising from the meeting, Justice Bulkachuwa told the open court that the PDP and its candidate wanted her to disqualify herself from the panel over alleged bias.
In her response, she told the appellants to file a formal a formal application to that effect, while ordering a stand down on the matter.
The panel chair said rather than an oral submission, such an action must be formally placed before the court through an application that should be argued by all parties.
The court said: “The counsel for the two petitioners raised an issue in chambers directing me to excuse myself from hearing their petition. This matter has initially been brought to my attention in a letter from the office of the National Chairman of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), dated May 8.
“Their request is now in public domain, but the counsel for the petitioners must approach the court with a formal application.”
While counsel to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Yunus Ustaz, SAN, said they were not opposed to the application, President Muhammadu Buhari’s counsel, Wole Olanipekun SAN, however, said he was ready to respond to the application if only the petitioners were ready to move the application orally.
In the alternative, he said, where the petitioners preferred a formal application, then they would be asking for the normal seven days provided by the law to respond, a position the APC counsel, Lateef Fagbemi, SAN, also aligned himself with.
In line with all submissions made, the panel fixed May 22 to entertain the application.
The PDP had in its opposition letter to Justice Bulkachuwa asked her to withdraw her membership of the panel on account of her family ties with the All Progressives Congress (APC).
It specifically said Mrs Bulkachuwa’s husband, Adamu, contested and won the Bauchi north senatorial district election on the platform of the APC during the February 23, 2019 poll.
The petition was signed by the PDP National Chairman, Uche Secondus, and its National Secretary, Umaru Tsauri.
They said: “We are reasoning that, armed with this golden rule of justice and fair hearing and given your direct intimacy, through your dear husband, with the APC, one of the parties in this election petition, Your Lordship, would have exercised your constitutional right and powers guardedly, judiciously and judicially, by excluding yourself from the panel of this honourable court’s sitting over this particular petition.”
The party also said the jurist could have, by a comment she made during the inaugural sitting of the tribunal on Wednesday, prejudged its petition challenging the outcome of the February 23, 2019 presidential election.
It stated that Justice Bulkachuwa’s claim in her speech that there would always be complaints no matter how an election was well-conducted had “rocked” its confidence in the panel led by her.
Making reference to some parts of Justice Bulkachuwa’s speech at the inaugural sitting, PDP said, “Furthermore, My Lord, in your address at the opening of the pre-hearing, you made some remarks that were both frightening and heart-warming. For instance, in your opening paragraph you said: ‘Elections are held in Nigeria every four years into elective positions. No matter how well the election is conducted, there are bound to be complaint(s).”
“This remark rocked our confidence in a panel led by Your Lordship to determine our fate in an election which could be one of the ones that were very well ‘conducted’ in Your Lordship’s opinion.
“The question then is how can a petitioner convince Your Lordship otherwise over an election, which in Your Lordship’s opinion, was very well ‘conducted’?”
..Tribunal grants C4C rights on Buhari, Osinbajo
In a related development, the tribunal granted Coalition for Change (C4C) and its presidential candidate, Geff Ojinika right to serve President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo with their petition by substituted means.
This followed an exparte application brought to it by the applicants.
“The applicants are hereby granted leave to serve President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo with the petition challenging their victory through substituted means.
“The first and second respondents should be served via the National Secretariat of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in No.40 Blantyre Crescent, Wuse II, Abuja.
The C4C and its presidential candidate had informed the court on their difficulty in serving their petition on Buhari and Osinbajo.
Pro- Atiku protesters storm venue
Meanwhile, security agencies comprising men and officers of the police as well as those of Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) mounted a watertight security at the venue of the tribunal’s sitting.
The security blocked all major roads, including an adjoining one leading to the Court of Appeal venue, thus creating a heavy vehicular traffic in the Central Business District.
This, however, would not deter some pro-Atiku protesters who positioned themselves outside the court premises displaying placards with inscriptions such as : # I stand with Atiku/Obi 2019 and ‘Bring back our mandate’, among several others.
Speaking to newsmen, one of the co-conveners and spokesman for the National Support Group for Atiku mandate, Justice Abraham, said their protest was basically to reclaim Atiku’s mandate.
He said Nigerians actually voted for him at the last presidential election, only to be denied victory.
He said, “Nigerians voted for Atiku during the last general election but the mandate was stolen from him. On our part, we have resolved that we will not give up until justice is done.
“We are also not comfortable with the person of Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa presiding as the tribunal chairman because of her family closeness to the ruling party. In fact, she should step down from this case so that there won’t be any negative influence in the proceeding. That is our stand.”