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The President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, yesterday bowed to pressure and exited as a member of the 2019 Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal.
This followed allegations of likelihood of bias levelled against her by the Peoples Democratic Party, (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
Altthough, the five-man panel of the tribunal, in a unanimous ruling, dismissed the application on the grounds that the allegations of a likelihood of bias were not established; Bulkachuwa said she was withdrawing for “personal reasons.”
In the application filed on May 16, the petitioners alleged that their petition challenging the victory of the All Progressives Congress and its candidate, President Muhammadu Buhari, in the February 23 poll, would not be handled impartially by the tribunal due to Justice Bulkachuwa’s ties to top members of the APC.
They noted that while Bulkachuwa’s husband, Adamu, is a senator-elect on the platform of the APC, the party whose victory at the February 23 presidential election they are challenging at the tribunal, her son, Aliyu Abubakar, was a governorship aspirant on the platform of the same party in Gombe State.
They also quoted a statement made by Justice Bulkachuwa at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal on May 8 as pre-judging their petition.
Justice Bulkachuwa was quoted as saying in her speech at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal that, “Elections are held in Nigeria, every four years into elective positions. No matter how well the elections are conducted, there are bound to be complaints.”
But delivering the lead ruling on the petitioners’ application on Wednesday, Justice Olabisi Ige said nothing could be inferred from the quote to suggest that Justice Bulkachuwa had pre-judged the petition.
Justice Ige ruled, “To the petitioners/applicants, the above remark appears to them that the President of this court and the Presiding Justice of this panel had already pre-judged the presidential election as well-conducted and that this petition is one of the complaints that come up no matter how well the election was conducted.
“I am of the solemn view that no such inference is discernible from the above quoted statement. The entire speech ought to be read as a whole in order to truly discover what the content of the inaugural speech portrayed.
Lawyers hail Bulkachuwa’s decision
All the lawyers representing the various parties to the petition – the PDP and Atiku, the Independent National Electoral Commission, APC and Buhari’s lawyer, Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN), said the decision had saved the judiciary from an embarrassment.
The petitioners’ lawyer, Livy Uzoukwu (SAN), said his team filed the application in their interest to protect the right of their clients.
He added that the application was “never personal,” adding that it was carefully done “to respect the institution.”
All the respondents’ through their lawyers –Yunus Usman (SAN) for INEC, Olanipekun for Buhari, and Lateef Fagbemi (SAN) for the APC, had earlier opposed the petitioners’ application.
But in what appeared to be candid advice, the lawyer representing the APC, Fagbemi, urged Bulkachuwa to “leave the matter” for the sake of her name and her retirement from the bench that is only barely a year away.
He said, “As it is fast becoming the norm and regrettably so, this is another havoc wreaked on the finest Nigerian jury. This is not the first time this is happening.
“Just recently, Justice Oyewole, whose immortal contribution was acknowledged by the counsel for the applicants a while ago, was written against not to be allowed to sit on the appeal panel on the Osun State governorship election petitions tribunal.
“Nebulous as ‘likelihood of bias’ is, it has its own boundaries. The exhortation in all the authorities that have been cited, recognises that each case will have to be dealt with on its own merit.
“The matter before the court has nothing to do with the governorship or National Assembly elections. Whatever the constitution of a political party is, it is the constitution of the country that is supreme, and nowhere in the Nigerian constitution is the President allowed to remove a governor or a member of the National Assembly.
“My conclusion, with respect, is that the application is blackmail. On the facts and the law, the application is most unmeritorious.
“But, with respect, next year, your lordship, the President of the Court of Appeal, will be bowing out gloriously by God’s grace.
“Your name, either the one you acquired before you got married, or the one you acquired after you got married, none is for you alone. You hold them in trust and you have been blessed – being the first female President of the Court of Appeal in Nigeria.
“My lord, your youthful look may confuse one. You are old enough to be my mother. My lord, you standing in as my parent, I will say, ‘Mum, leave the matter.’”
Natural justice demands she doesn’t sit on the panel, says PDP
Reacting to the issue, the PDP said it had nothing against the person of Justice Bulkachuwa.
Rather, it said it decided to file the application in order to protect the integrity of the judiciary.
The National Chairman of the PDP, Prince Uche Secondus, who spoke with one of our correspondents, said, “We have nothing personal against Her Lordship. Rather, what we did was to help her protect her name. Natural justice demands she doesn’t sit in such a case. That’s what she has done. That’s fine by us. We are okay with her decision.”
Atiku application is gender discrimination – WIN, CISLAC
Meanwhile, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre and the Women in Nigeria, on Wednesday, described the application by the PDP and Atiku as discriminatory against women.
In a statement signed by the Executive Director, CISLAC, Auwal Ibrahim Musa, and Ms. Chioma Kanu of Women In Nigeria, the groups described the application as a case of gender discrimination “under a baseless political reason and unjustified grounds that her spouse is a member of a political party.”