A legal victory foretold, By Bolaji Adebiyi

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Right from the time the petitions were filed on the deadline in March, not a few discerning legal minds said the suits were weak in substance, and the moment addresses were filed a few weeks ago, the weakness became even more visible. Perhaps realising that their legal complaints were standing on wobbling legs, there was the usual resort to blackmail: Eyes on the Judiciary, a campaign clearly intended to harass the adjudicators in the matter.

On Wednesday, the five justices of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, led by Haruna Tsammani, unanimously confirmed the obvious. “Having considered that all the three petitions are devoid of merit, I hereby dismiss all the petitions. I affirmed the declaration by INEC that Ahmed Bola Tinubu is duly elected president of Nigeria,” the tribunal declared in its 13-hour judgment, the longest in Nigeria’s judicial history.

Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party, Peter Obi of the Labour Party, and the Allied Peoples Movement had filed similar complaints before the tribunal, hanging their grouse on Tinubu’s eligibility, his failure to score 25 per cent of the votes in Abuja, and that the results were a massive fraud for the reason of the Independent National Electoral Commission’s failure to electronically transmit results real-time. Of course, Obi was the loudest of the three petitioners.

Delivering its judgment, the tribunal dismissed the petitions one after the other, saying they lacked merit, largely because they were essentially speculative, and that the allegations of fraud were unproven. “The petitions have no legs upon which they can stand and survive, hence, not competent,” Moses Ugoh, the justice who delivered one of the judgments said of Atiku’s suit, even as his colleague, Abba Mohammed, pointed out in the Obi’s case, “The law is very clear that where someone alleged irregularities in a particular polling unit, such person must prove the particular irregularities in that polling unit for him to succeed in his petition.”

In the main, the tribunal affirmed that Tinubu was eligible, did not have to score 25 per cent of the votes in Abuja to meet the declaration threshold, and that fraud was not proved.

Expectedly, Tinubu was elated and accepted the judicial outcome. “President Tinubu welcomes the judgment of the court with an intense sense of solemn responsibility and preparedness to serve all Nigerians, irrespective of all diverse political persuasions, faiths, and tribal identities,” Ajuri Ngelale, his spokesman, said in a swift statement, adding, “The President recognises the diligence, undaunted thoroughness and professionalism of the five-member bench, led by Justice Haruna Tsammani in interpreting the law.”

While Atiku is yet to find his voice, Obi in a statement on Thursday, said he and his party disagreed with the judgment and would test its validity upstairs at the Supreme Court. He appealed to their supporters to abide by the judgment and be calm as they make their next move. The PDP and its presidential candidate might follow the same path. That is their right as laid down by law, and they should be commended for taking that route instead of the fire and brimstone that had been threatened by some of their voluble supporters, who had attempted to harass the tribunal justices with threat to violence if the judgment did not go the way of their candidates.

While the disappointment of the opposition with the judgment is understandable, it ought to have been obvious to them that they were up to an uphill task in trying to upturn the presidential election results. The general rule of the electoral contest in this environment is that one should not be the complainant largely because election petitions, particularly based on an allegation of fraud is difficult to prove. Whilst elections at the lower levels, including governorship and legislative have been overturned on a number of occasions, no presidential contest has been overruled.

It is probably against this background that some perceptive analysts thought the presidential petitions were a waste of time. This is more so because this president that they are dealing with is a master of the game who had retained a solid and battle-tested legal team that had over the years helped him in his legal battles. In any case, it ought to have been understood that electoral adjudication is an extension of politics, particularly because it is based on the rule of the majority.

At the lower level, there are three judges, handling governorship and legislative disputes. At the presidential level, it is five justices. Then upstairs, seven for president, and five for others. So, it depends on who is more persuasive to get more judges to their side. The majority of two are required at the tribunal, and three at the appeal level, then four at the Supreme Court.

At the level of presidential adjudication, public policy, not justice, is a major rule that usually favours the winner and the incumbent. It is usually asked: Is it in the interest of the public (state) to cancel an election of that magnitude having regard to the potential humongous financial and social cost to the nation? From Shagari to Buhari, the majority of the judicial adjudicators have negative this proposition. This is not about to change.

The respondents  (INEC, APC, and Tinubu) had rested their cases on this age-long rule even as the applicants (Atiku, Obi, PDP, and Labour) appeared to have struggled to make a weak case against the policy, hence the recourse to the media trial and intimidation. But that was bound to fail just as the efforts to win the election through social media also failed spectacularly. The fact of the matter is that the petitions being incompetent only aided the application of this policy.

More importantly, it should be obvious by now that the outcome of the presidential election could not have been different given the dissipation of votes by the opposition. And it is hoped that the petitioners and their sympathisers have learnt an important lesson: politics is not a frivolous pastime, but a serious engagement in which only the dogged triumphs.

 

Adebiyi, the executive editor of Western Post, is also a member of THISDAY Editorial Board