Justice Mohammed Garba, who replaced the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, on the five-man panel of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, took charge of the pre-hearing proceedings of the tribunal for the first time on Monday.
He called for the “fullest cooperation” of petitioners and their lawyers for the expeditious hearing of the pending petitions.
All the four petitions filed before the tribunal to challenge the February 23, 2019 presidential election came up on Monday, but one of them which was filed by the Coalition for Change and its candidate, Geff Ojinika, was withdrawn in the course of the proceedings, leaving three behind to be heard and determined by the five-man panel.
Justice Bulkachuwa had withdrawn from the panel on May 22, 2019 following an allegation of likelihood of bias levelled against her by the Peoples Democratic Party and its presidential candidate in the February 23, 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar.
The petitioners’ allegation was based on the fact that Bulkachuwa’s husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, is a senator-elect on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, the party whose victory at the February 23 presidential election they are challenging at the tribunal, and her son, Aliyu Abubakar, was a governorship aspirant on the platform of the same party in Gombe State.
Garba emerged on Monday as the replacement for Bulkachuwa, who withdrew her membership of the panel about 19 days ago.
Monday’s proceedings only came about 10 days after the legal team of the petitioners wrote Bulkachuwa a letter reminding her of her promise to name her replacement promptly.
Garba, who is the presiding justice of the Lagos Division of the Court of Appeal, now leads Justices Abdul Aboki (Abuja Division), Joseph Ikyegh (Benin Division), Samuel Oseji (Lagos Division) and Peter Ige (Abuja Division) on the panel of the tribunal.
He said, “I will like to renew the call for the fullest cooperation of parties and their respective counsel that will be appearing in the petitions before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal.
“We are aware of the constraint of time that has been imposed on the court by both the 1999 Constitution and the Electoral Act for the hearing and determination of the petitions.
“We are also aware that we have almost gone halfway of the time we have for the hearing and determination of the petitions.”
Justice Garba said the cooperation of the lawyers and their clients were needed for the panel to make the best use of the time left.
Responding, the legal team of the PDP and Atiku led by Dr Livy Uzoukwu (SAN) assured the panel that his team would “give necessary cooperation to ensure that the petition is expeditiously heard.”
Lawyers representing the respondents – the Independent National Electoral Commission, Buhari and the APC – also gave similar assurance.
INEC’s legal team was led by Mr Yunus Usman (SAN), Buhari’s by Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), while Mr Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) represented the APC.
On Monday, the Coalition for Change and its presidential candidate, Geff Ojinika, withdrew their joint petition challenging the outcome of the February 23, 2019 presidential election.
Announcing the decision, Mr Obed Agu, told the panel he was instructed by his clients to withdraw the petition.
The respondents’ lawyers did not oppose the request for the withdrawal of the petition.
The petition was subsequently dismissed by the tribunal, leaving the five-man panel with only three pending petitions filed to challenge the victory of President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC at the poll.
The remaining petitions comprised the one jointly filed by the PDP and Atiku, the Hope Democratic Party and its presidential candidate, Ambrose Owuru; and the Peoples Democratic Movement with its candidate, Pastor Aminchi Habu.
The tribunal also on Monday adjourned till Tuesday (today) the hearing of a total of 16 applications filed in respect of the petition of the PDP and Atiku alone.
The Justice Garba-led panel adjourned the applications for hearing after the various parties to the petition identified what they had filed before the tribunal.
Of the 16 applications, six of them were filed by the PDP and its candidate, while the rest of the 10 were filed by the respondents.
Of the respondents’ 10 applications, seven were filed by them seeking the dismissal or striking out of the petition while the three others were either seeking the amendment of their papers and the leave to bring their applications up at the tribunal’s pre-hearing session.
The tribunal also adjourned pending applications filed in respect of the petitions by the HDP and the PDM till June 13 and June 17, respectively.