At the Presidential Election Petitions Court began its sitting on Monday, ESTHER BLACKSON writes that opposition parties’ demand for a live broadcast of the court proceedings will mark the first legal battle
One of the issues that the Presidential Election Petitions Court will first attend to is the demand by the opposition parties for a live broadcast of its proceedings.
The Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate, former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar, and his Labour Party counterpart, Peter Obi, in the suits they filed against the victory of the All Progressive Congress standard bearer, Bola Tinubu, demanded the live broadcast.
Currently, four political parties are contesting the victory of Tinubu in the 2023 general elections.
The Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Mahmood Yakubu, had on March 1 declared Tinubu the president-elect on grounds that his party scored a majority of votes cast at the poll.
March 1 signalled the opening for submission of petitions regarding the presidential election following the announcement of the president-elect.
The PEPC is now set to hear these cases alleging non-compliance with electoral laws and guidelines, as well as various irregularities and electoral malpractices.
The four political parties and their candidates are challenging the outcome of the February 25 presidential election on grounds of non-compliance with the electoral laws as well as the guidelines of INEC. They have raised various issues for determination bordering on alleged corrupt practices, overvoting, and non-qualification of the president-elect among others.
Furthermore, the petitioners also alleged that the February 25 presidential election was characterised by massive irregularities and electoral malpractices following INEC’s failure to electronically upload results immediately from its polling units to the INEC Results Viewing Portal.
Legal experts are of the opinion that the case has the potential to reshape Nigeria’s political landscape, as it touches on fundamental issues of electoral integrity and the rule of law.
For instance, a lawyer, Kunle Adegoke (SAN), said the agitation that the petitions should be determined before the May 29 presidential inauguration was reasonable but not feasible because of the provision of the constitution which allowed for 180 days before the conclusion of the election matters.
He stated, “It is ideal, but within the context of where we are today constitutionally and statutorily, it is not feasible.”
“However, that can be good grounds to suggest an amendment to the provision of the constitution and the Electoral Act whereby elections may have to be held at least a year before the handover date.’’
One of the highlights of the proceedings is the motion on notice filed by Atiku and the PDP for the live broadcast of the presidential tribunal proceeding.
At the court sitting on Monday, Atiku and the PDP, through their legal team led by Chris Uche (SAN), announced that they had filed an application for an order to allow live coverage of day-to-day proceedings of the sitting.
Insisting that their case against Tinubu was a matter of national concern and public interest, the petitioners specifically applied for “an order directing the court’s registry and the parties on modalities for admission of media practitioners and their equipment into the courtroom.”
They argued that the case involved the electorate in the 36 states of the federation and the Federal Capital Territory, who participated in the presidential poll and have the constitutional right to be part of the proceedings.
More so, in the motion, they said the International Community was equally interested in issues pertaining to Nigeria’s electoral process.
The aggrieved party stated, “With the huge and tremendous technological advances and developments in Nigeria and beyond, including the current trend by this court towards embracing electronic procedures, virtual hearing and electronic filing, a departure from the rules to allow a regulated televising of the proceedings in this matter is in consonance with the maxim that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done.”
During the Tuesday proceedings, Uche informed the court that they had filed and served a motion requesting a live broadcast of the presidential tribunal proceedings.
He maintained that the application was a motion of priority requiring immediate attention given the national importance of the issue at hand.
“We urge your Lordship to set it down for hearing and adoption as soon as the court’s business may allow.”
Responding, counsel for INEC, A.B. Mahmoud, acknowledged the application and requested time to respond.
On his part, counsel for the second respondent, the APC, Lateef Fagbemi, said they received the application and “are taking steps to respond appropriately to the application.”
Responding further, Uche argued that he was just hearing that the second and third respondents had filed on the matter, adding that, they were prepared to accept service in the open court.
He urged the respondents to treat it urgently.
“We pray that the parties don’t insist on the maximum length of time if we are to make progress,” Uche said.
Responding to Uche’s prayer, Fagbemi said, “The filing was done by 9:30 am and not in the open court. If he said counsel should cooperate, we will follow the time. We will not flout the rules.”
Consequently, Justice Tsammani asked parties to settle all issues for objections and determination, stating that the application for a live broadcast of the proceeding “will be considered along with the other issues.”
Commenting on the request for a live broadcast, Adegoke SAN said the demand was improper.
He stated, “There is a need for justice to be done and to be seen as being done, but when court proceedings are being subjected to public hearings…a lot of things happen in court that the majority of people don’t understand because there are rules regulating proceedings. In a substantially illiterate society like ours, it is going to constitute a lot of nuisance.”
He argued that the right to information should not be an unrestricted licence to expose the judiciary to unnecessary scrutiny by unlearned communities who may want to project their biases and sentiments in the ongoing petition proceeding.
“Anybody who wants to have a better feel of the proceedings should attend the court sitting. What Nigerians will do with it will be an embarrassment,” he said.
On his part, a foremost lawyer, Jiti Ogunye, stated that the request for telecast by Atiku Abubakar and PDP was an extraneous matter and added nothing to the issue at hand.
He said the courtroom was not a campaign ground or a caucus meeting adding that the independence of the judiciary cut deeper than mere interference in the administration of justice.
He argued that the court of law and tribunals had rules of courts and practice directions that govern the conduct of proceedings.
He said the amplification of allowing access to the court is not done whimsically, under the rule of the thumb or because of the asking.
“A court proceeding is solemn and sober exercise. It is not a football match, not a live crusade or live concert.”
He said the advancement in technology which included the interactive dimension allowing comments while the proceeding is ongoing would interfere with the business of the court.
“ That kind of advance in technology will allow, for example, a live telecast of the proceeding of the court to be interfered with by members of the public…to insert their own biases and views which are unrefined mostly and have nothing to do in law…which will get back to the judges. It is not a one-day event.”
“Once you allow that, you are enhancing the possibility that those walls which are built around judges and which allow them to do their work would collapse.”
More so, he advised parties to the petition to focus on the substance of the matter at hand adding that the media influenced and shaped opinions.
“I would advise parties to focus on the matter and stop chasing shadows.”
Meanwhile, the petition by the Action Alliance party and its standard bearer, Solomon Okanigbuan, has been thrown out following their leadership tussle and the subsequent withdrawal of the case.
One major contention of the AA was against INEC. According to the party, Hamza Al-Mustapha, who appeared as a candidate of the party at the February election, was not known to them.
The party stated that Al-Mustapha did not also take part in any of its primary elections but emerged on the list through the misconduct of the electoral body.
The petitioners were seeking the nullification of the presidential elections following the exclusion of its presidential candidate.
However, upon the first pre-hearing session, the petition by the Action Alliance was called and different counsel announced their appearances.
Okanigbuan was in court and the AA was represented by the chairman of the party, Adekunle Omo-Aje, who announced his appearance.
Following this, Oba Maduabuchi(SAN) announced his appearance for the AA party.
However, a mild drama ensued as Malachi Umuebe also announced his appearance at the same party.
But maintaining his stance as the representative of the party, Maduabuchi sought the order of the court to withdraw the petition in its entirety.
Speaking, he demanded the withdrawal of the party’s name from the petition on the grounds that the AA did not consent to be joined in the petition.
He cited the Court of Appeal judgment, which according to him, stated, “You people are not even members of the Action Alliance.” He added that he would not like to drag the court into the matter.
Maduabuchi said, “My prayers are that upon withdrawal, the petition be dismissed,” adding that “I have been served by the respondents that they are not opposing.”
“We have no objection, my Lord,” Mahmoud responded.
In a brief ruling, Justice Tsammani said, “The petition is hereby dismissed.”
The party had been embroiled in a leadership crisis. One faction alleged that Solomon Okanigbuan was its authentic candidate and not Al-Mustapha whose name INEC was published during the build-up to the elections.
The faction said INEC refused to upload their candidate’s name to their website even after many protest letters and The High Court order directing them to do so.
But during Monday’s proceedings, Maduabuch, who appeared for the party during the pre-hearing, stated that the Court of Appeal, on two judgments, affirmed the non-recognition of the petitioners declining, on behalf of the party, to be joined in the petition.