Taking Stock of Nigeria’s 2023 Presidential Election Petition Tribunal
On November 7, 2022, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Justice Olukayode Ariwoola, inaugurated the Election Petition Tribunals that would adjudicate cases challenging the conduct of the 2023 presidential election and its outcome. Nigeria’s history of post-electoral petitions, specific allegations of irregularities, public sentiment, and the resulting debates and discussions set the stage for the judiciary's role in addressing the concerns.
It has been nearly three months since the keenly contested Nigerian presidential election was conducted. The election, which saw the declaration of Bola Ahmed Tinubu as President-Elect, by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) has stirred up controversies and debates. The public discourse has been filled with essays, opinions, and analyses, with some dissenting voices labelling the process a charade. Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, representing the People’s Democratic Party, and former Governor of Anambra State Peter Obi, representing the Labour Party, emerged as runners-up in the contest. However, both candidates promptly challenged Tinubu’s victory, with Obi asserting his own victory.
However, the ultimate determination of the election's credibility lies in the hands of the Judiciary. This paper assesses the pivotal role of the judiciary, so far, in determining the credibility of the elections.
The five-member Presidential Election Petition Tribunal panel, which is chaired by Justice Haruna Tsamani has Justice Stephen Adah, Justice Monsurat Bolaji-Yusuf, Justice Moses Ugo, and Justice Abba Mohammed as members. On May 8, 2023, the proceedings began at the Court of Appeal complex in Abuja. Since then, the court sessions have been a volatile blend of impassioned debates, emotional displays, and desperate attempts from the rival parties to sway the outcome in their favor. Here is summary of some of the highpoints.
Withdrawal of petitions: The Action Alliance (AA), one of the parties, which had earlier contested the election against President Tinubu withdrew its petition. The party filed the withdrawal on the first day of pre-hearing. Shortly after this, the Action Peoples Party (APP) withdrew their petition against the APC, INEC and Bola Tinubu. The action of these parties raised eyebrows and caused a flurry of conversations on social media with many alleging compromise and betrayal. These reactions stemmed from the fact that none of the parties involved adduced any reason behind their sudden decisions to terminate further proceedings on the case they brought against Tinubu’s election victory.
Interestingly, Barrister Alaowei Ebikonbowei Cleric, a human rights lawyer when interviewed by the Independent newspaper explained that “there is nothing wrong for the parties to withdraw their cases if they discovered that they cannot prove their cases.”
Labour Party Leadership Saga: The Labour Party (LP) caused quite a commotion within and outside the courtroom. First, there was the chaotic free-for-all fight between factions of Bashiru Lamidi Apapa and Mr Julius Abure (both claiming to be the national chairman of the party). Then, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) lawyer, Oba Maduabuchi, attempted to represent the Labour Party and its presidential candidate, Peter Obi. For context, Mr Abure was suspended by a Federal Capital Territory High Court in Abuja in April. Lamidi Apapa who was earlier suspended by the party, assumed headship of the Labour Party.
Strict guideline on attendance and use of gadget: After the major disagreement within the camp of Labour Party, the court placed restrictions on attendance, ensuring that only accredited individuals were allowed to observe proceedings. This did not go down well with LP supporters who protested close to the court building at intervals. The court further prohibited the use of phones and gadgets during court proceedings. The decision according to internal sources was a result of unauthorised photos and recordings of court proceedings by individuals.
Live broadcast of court sittings: On May 23, 2023, the five-man panel of justices unanimously dismissed the application filed by counsel to the PDP & Atiku, LP & Obi for the live broadcast of proceedings. The five-member panel of the court headed by Justice Tsammani held that the application lacked merit. The elections court added that Nigeria’s judicial policies and legislative framework had no place for the live telecast of court sessions.
What to Retain from the Tribunal so Far?
The trial began properly on Tuesday, May 30th, 2023. It was the case of PDP against INEC, APC and Bola Tinubu. The counsel for PDP brought some evidence which were printed BVAS records of voters from Abia state, Bayelsa, Ogun state and Kaduna state. The documents were said to have emanated from INEC after a payment of 6 million Naira. The Justices admitted the documents as evidence. All respondents objected to this decision and did not give their consent. The LP counsel at earlier stages of the trial showed a certain level of disorganization as they submitted wrong documents. They were cautioned by the Justices who insisted on proper document submission.
The LP counsel submitted documents for local governments in the following constituencies: 15 LGA for River State, 23 LGA for Benue State, 18 LGA for Cross River State, 23 LGA for Niger State, 20 LGA for Osun State and 16 LGA for Ekiti State. Although INEC, APC and Tinubu opposed these documents; the Justices admitted them as evidence.
As the trial continued with cross-examination, there were claims and counter claims from opposing lawyers and sometimes witnesses. In the case of the 25% threshold, the PDP chairman in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), Muhammed Madaki who was a witness for the PDP retorted at the lawyer when asked if his candidate made the 25% threshold in the FCT by asking if the president made 25% also.
When asked about the precise number of PUs in the FCT, he couldn't respond. The lawyer interrogating him, however, pointed out that Muhammed had written in his witness deposition that there are 2,822 PUs in the FCT. He was asked the meaning of "conscientiously" as used in the deposition he had earlier claimed he prepared by himself without the input of his lawyer. He said he could not remember the meaning. He was later asked to go.
Another PDP witness, Abraham David, was questioned on why he didn't state the number of votes that he claimed were unlawfully collated by INEC. David, who said he served as a PDP collation agent at the FCT level, could not name any of the INEC officials he claimed didn't perform their duties. When asked if he had another result different from that of INEC, he said no. The lawyers revealed that the Statement on Oath of Madaki and David are the same, "words for words". Another PDP witness from Nasarawa state, Mallam Ibrahim, said the state election results sheet shown to him in the court, was not the same as the one he signed during the election. According to him, he signed on a clean sheet with no alterations. He alleged that the result sheet was altered after he was allegedly forced to sign.
Ibrahim was questioned on why he claimed in the court that he signed the result under duress, which he never stated in his statement of disposition. It was made clear that Ibrahim was challenging the return of the second respondent, Tinubu, and his party. The lawyer pointed out that LP had the highest votes in the exhibit tendered –35.40% of the total votes cast in Nasarawa. Ibrahim agreed but said it was not true. When asked about the authentic result, he said it was with the national agent who was not present in court. Ibrahim further claimed that the first petitioner, Atiku Abubakar, contested under the 2nd petitioner, PDP and therefore has the right to be returned elected.
The PDP tendered form EC8 series from Kogi state, in respect of 10 LGAs, lamenting that some documents had been subpoenaed but had not been gotten from INEC. LP and Obi tendered INEC-certified copies of Forms EC8Bs for 17 states, this was objected by counsel to the four respondents. LP and Obi also tendered form EC8Ds for the 36 states and the FCT. All four respondents objected to the admissibility of all the bundles of documents tendered by the petitioners as stated above. However, the Panel of Justices admitted the documents and marked them as exhibits. The petitioners further tendered the form EC8D(k) which is the National Result. The four respondents did not object to the admissibility of the document. The Panel admitted it and marked it as Exhibit PBF.
The petitioners also presented a senior respondent from Channels Television, as a witness. Three videos from the witness were played. A video of the INEC chairman addressing the press and Nigerians about BVAS and the ability of BVAS to transmit election results in real-time. A second video was also played, it is a video of Channels TV’s Seun Okinbaloye in an interview with an INEC official, Festus Okoye. A third video was played, it had to do with the double nomination of Kashim Shettima of the APC. It was a video of Bola Tinubu granting an interview and speaking on the candidacy of Shettima.
Semblances of Disinformation Targeting the Presidential Election Tribunal
The proliferation of false information on social media platforms since the start of the work of the Tribunal has been noticeable. These instances of disinformation swiftly go viral, often depending on the political party they appear to favour. Here are a few fact-checks done in response to the disinformation around the proceedings of the Tribunal:
- A video claiming a lawyer was making an objection against the live broadcast of the Presidential Election Tribunal has circulated online. The video was circulated on Twitter on the same day the Presidential Tribunal held its inaugural sitting. CDD Election War Room however found that the court session depicted in the video was about the trial of Samura Kamara, the presidential candidate of Sierra Leone’s main opposition party, the All Peoples Congress (APC).
- In another viral claim, a Twitter user claimed that security personnel prevented supporters of Peter Obi, presidential candidate of the Labour Party, from accessing the Presidential Election Tribunal. The CDD Election War Room observed the proceedings at the Court of Appeal and confirmed that groups of All Progressives Congress (APC), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), and the Labour Party (LP) supporters were granted access to the court premises.
What to Expect?
As the high-profile case continues to captivate public attention, expectations are high for an influx of allegations of malpractice from all sides interested in the case, thus driving mis/disinformation on social media. The upcoming phases of the trial will involve the presentation of additional witnesses and documents as evidence. Petitioners, including the PDP’s Atiku, LP’s Obi, are anticipated to issue more subpoenas to support their claims. Simultaneously, heated debates on social media are likely to escalate as each party strives to validate their position. However, there is a new twist in the polity with what appears to be the growing public acceptance of the President. This prompts the question: are the dissenting voices, who want the election outcome reversed, still as interested in the case?
Chioma Iruke is factchecker at the Centre for Democracy and Developement