May 24, 2023

Presidential poll: Court merges Atiku, Obi, APM’s petitions for hearing May 30

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By Ikechukwu Nnochiri, ABUJA

Despite objections by the President-elect, Asiwaju Bola Tinubu and the ruling All Progressives Congress, APC, the Presidential Election Petition Court, PEPC, sitting in Abuja, yesterday consolidated the three different petitions seeking to nullify the outcome of the 2023 presidential election.

The court, in its pre-hearing report, said it was empowered by Paragraph 50 of the First Schedule to the Electoral Act, 2022, to merge the petitions since they all related to the same election.

The Justice Haruna Tsammani-led five-member panel said it was satisfied that consolidating and determining the three petitions together would assist it in speedily resolving all the legal issues trailing the presidential election that was held on February 25.
Consequently, it slated May 30 for all the petitioners to open their case, beginning with the candidate of the Labour Party, LP, Mr Peter Obi.

Though Obi, who came third in the election, initially asked for seven weeks to call 50 witnesses and tender evidence to establish that the presidential election was rigged against him, the court, however, said it would only give him three weeks to prove his petition.

The court, which noted that 88 witnesses were billed to appear in Obi’s case, further gave the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, the President-elect and the Vice President-elect, Senator Kashim Shettima, five days each, to present their defence.

Similarly, it gave the 4th respondent in the case, Kabiru Masari, three days to also defend himself. While stressing that all the star witnesses that would be produced by the petitioners would only be allowed to use a maximum of 30 minutes to adopt their written depositions and tender documents where required, the court held that such witnesses would be cross-examined within 20 minutes.

It added that other class of witnesses would present their evidence-in-chief within 10 minutes and be re-examined for five minutes, saying it would engage a timekeeper to ensure strict adherence to the period allotted to each witness.

While directing the registry of the court to issue hearing notices to all the petitioners, Justice Tsammani-led panel gave July 10 as the date for the closure of evidence in the consolidated petitions, just as it fixed August 5 for all the parties to adopt their final briefs of argument to enable it to fix a date for judgement.

Besides, before the petition by the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party, PDP, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, was merged with the others, the court said it observed from processes before it that the parties had lined up a total of 166 witnesses in the matter.
Adopting the same timing it gave for witnesses in Obi’s case, the panel gave Atiku the nod to present his proposed 100 witnesses within three weeks, while it gave the INEC two days, Tinubu and the APC, five days each, to defend the outcome of the presidential election.

Reeling out the prepared schedule for the full-blown hearing, the court held that the petitioners would present their case from May 30 to June 20, while INEC, which is the 1st respondent, would enter its defence from June 21 to June 28. Whereas the President-elect was given from June 29 to July 6 to defend his election, the court gave the APC July 7 to July 16 to conclude its own defence.

The court also gave the third litigant in the consolidated petition, Allied Peoples Movement, APM, one day to call its proposed lone witness. It allocated a day to INEC to enter its defence, while it gave Tinubu and Masari two days and a day respectively to present their defence. APM told the court that it would mainly rely on documentary evidence to establish its case that Tinubu and the APC did not win the presidential contest.

According to the court, proceedings in the presidential election dispute will also hold on Saturdays.
It will be recalled that though five petitions were initially filed to challenge the return of Tinubu as the winner of the election, the Action Alliance, AA, however, withdrew its case on May 8, even as the Action Peoples Party, APP, followed suit two days later by also discontinuing further proceedings on its own petition.

Meanwhile, the PDP candidate and former Vice President, Atiku, said yesterday he was not worried that the President-elect, Tinubu, would be sworn in on May 29, before the conclusion of the petition seeking to nullify his election victory. Atiku, who came second in the election, said he was optimistic that he would reclaim his mandate in court.

Speaking through his lead counsel, Chief Chris Uche, SAN, shortly after the court consolidated all the petitions, Atiku maintained that the court had the powers to sack Tinubu from office, even after the swearing-in ceremony.
Though he acknowledged that hearing of the petition would commence about 24 hours after Tinubu must have been sworn in as the President, the PDP candidate, through his lawyer, said: “I have been asked about May 29, I want to assure people that swearing-in is only a ceremony that does not in any way tie the hands of the court.

“The taking of oath binds the person who takes the oath and not the court. The court has given its timeline for parties to present their case and we are happy that with the development, the petitions will be expeditiously determined.’’

In another development, the President-elect, Tinubu, has barred his legal team from speaking to newsmen throughout the duration of the hearing of the consolidated petition seeking to invalidate his election victory.

The lead counsel that appeared for the APC at the resumed proceedings yesterday, Chief Niyi Akintola, SAN, made the disclosure in the open court after the panel gave a hint that it might, henceforth, bar both lawyers and members of the public from entering the courtroom with their mobile phones and other electronic gadgets.

Justice Tsammani said the decision was based on the need to enhance security within the courtroom and protect the sanctity of the proceedings.

Lawyers had before the court began its proceedings yesterday, resisted attempts by security operatives attached to the court to collect their handsets before they could gain access into the courtroom.

With the doors to the courtroom locked, the security agents drew the attention of the lawyers and newsmen to a printed notice pasted at strategic locations within the court premises, which banned everyone from going inside the court with phones and other gadgets.
After a mild commotion that ensued at the entrance to the courtroom, the operatives eventually bulged and allowed everyone to go in with their phones.

Addressing the issue immediately after the sitting commenced, the head of the panel, Justice Tsammani, while justifying the directive, said the court was aware that some people were secretly recording its proceedings.

“What we are doing is for the good and safety of everyone and also based on advice from the security agencies. We all know that with technology now, a little chip can set this place on fire,” he stated, adding that lawyers, as ministers in the temple of justice, ought to cooperate with the court at all times.

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