21 May 2019

Nigeria: Earning a Hearing

opinion

Erahodu Oseghale reckons that the chairman of the presidential election petition panel is an interested party in the issue at stake

I have taken pains to go through the speech delivered by Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, President of the Court of Appeal and chairman of the five-man Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal. The learned justice made a lot of sense.

In the speech, she assured us, among other things, that "the Court of Appeal will work in accordance and within the dictates of the constitution, the law and international best practices, to dispense justice to all, without fear or favour, affection or ill will".

Well said. That should be the expectation of all men and women of goodwill. That is the expectation of all lovers of democracy. We expect, and rightly so, that the learned justices will be the real arbiters that they are supposed to be. It is our expectation that they will recognise that they are the last hope of the common man. Nigerians will expect that the justices will set aside all personal and parochial interests and focus on national interest. We expect that they will comfort us where politics and rapacious greed have failed us. That is why we connect with Justice Bulkachuwa and her fellow panelists.

But I am worried about the job which Bulkachuwa has been assigned to do. A common legal maxim tells us that he who must go to equity must do so with clean hands. I am afraid to say that Justice Bulkachuwa's hands are not clean in this matter. Her details and involvement in certain matters make her an interested party and as such her hands are soiled. And if that is the case, the learned Justice cannot be expected to give a clean and undiluted verdict in this matter.

Let us provide some details. It is a well known fact that Justice Bulkachuwa is the wife of Adamu Mohammed Bulkachuwa. The said Mohammed is a senator-elect for Bauchi North senatorial district. He was elected under the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC). This detail here does not favour Justice Bulkachuwa. In the matter in which she sits as chairman of the panel, the APC, her husband's party, is locking horns with the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the party whose presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar, is seeking to oust the candidate of her husband's party, Muhammadu Buhari of APC. This scenario makes Justice Bulkachuwa an interested party in this matter. It will present difficult times for her. She could, under the circumstance, cave in under the weight of compromise. Once she is compromised, she will become biased and partial. When this happens, her integrity will be called to question. This is clearly a worrisome development.

Justice Bulkachuwa's possible compromise is deepened by the fact that her husband, the senator-elect, is believed to have very close liaison with President Buhari.

Given this set-up, Justice Bulkachuwa does not need to be told that her neutrality in this matter has become suspect. She cannot be trusted to do justice in the circumstance in which she finds herself. Significantly, she was recently associated with an admonition which charges members of the bar and bench to shun bias in matters in which they are involved. She was reported to have said that justice demands that judges who sit in the panel of a tribunal must divest themselves of all forms of bias. The learned justice should practice what she preaches. Her bias in the Buhari-Atiku legal tango is taken for granted. The honourable thing to do therefore is for her to excuse herself from participating in the panel.

It is also worthy of note that the PDP has formally written honourable Justice Bulkachuwa, requesting her to recuse herself from the panel. The party relied on her marital affiliation to arrive at its position. Just like every man and woman of conscience is saying, PDP is insisting that fair hearing cannot be guaranteed in this matter if a compromised, biased and partial judge who also happens to be the president of the Court of Appeal is allowed to sit on the presidential election petition tribunal.

Justice like the journalism profession admonishes its practitioners to stay away from issues in which they are involved, the legal profession equally charges its practitioners not to sit in judgment in any matter where there is likelihood of bias on their part. This is because justice must be rooted in confidence. PDP as a political party is saying that in this matter that it does not have confidence in Justice Bulkachuwa. We understand and appreciate in its worries. We share in the party's concern. Justice Bulkachuwa should therefore heed wise counsel and excuse herself from the matter.

In this matter, there is the need to save Justice Bulkachuwa from herself. Temptations of office and the allure of power may blur her vision and becloud her sense of reasoning. But there is the need to call her to order. She will be saving herself from infamy if she toes the honourable path by withdrawing from the panel.

Besides, the matter we have on our hands is a very testy one. It is about the future of our democracy and the survival of Nigeria. The election was keenly contested. But after the exercise, many had cause to feel awkward about its outcome. In the process, politicians have had to throw jibes at one another. The electoral commission which conducted the elections has been harangued and buffeted. The time has therefore come for the temple of justice to be relied upon.

Over time, the judiciary has been accepted as the bastion of democracy. It is believed to be the last hope of the hopeless. That is why people hold their breath whenever they approach the law in difficult or seemingly difficult circumstances. The people's confidence in the law calls for reciprocity on the part of those who dispense justice. That is why democratic setups demand for independence of the judiciary. The objective is for the law to operate without fetters so that it can serve the common good.

That is what we expect in the present circumstance. Justice Bulkachuwa should therefore allow the wheel of justice to roll unhindered. If she does this, she would have lived up to her own billing, to wit, that the Court of Appeal will dispense justice to all without fear or favour, affection or ill will.

Oseghale wrote from Benin City

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