President Muhammadu Buhari exhibited the stuff of a statesman yesterday as he extended hand of fellowship to the opposition moments after the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal (PEPT) upheld his February 23, 2019 victory at the poll.
The five-man tribunal, chaired by Justice Mohammed Garba, in a unanimous judgment that lasted over nine hours, had thrown out a petition filed by the candidate of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and his party, challenging Buhari's declaration as winner of the election.
It said the petition lacked merit and accordingly upheld the re-election of the president.
The battle is, however, to shift to the Supreme Court as Atiku and the PDP wednesday signified their intention to challenge the judgment of the tribunal.
Both Buhari and his party, All Progressives Congress (APC) welcomed the judgment, with the president dedicating his victory to Nigerians just as he extended hand of fellowship to the opposition. The APC also described the verdict as a victory for the rule of law and decency.
Atiku and PDP failed to get the tribunal to declare them winner as they had prayed in their petition because, according to the judicial panel, they were unable to prove beyond reasonable doubt their claims.
The petitioners in their joint petition filed on March 18, 2019, had asked the tribunal to disqualify Buhari on the grounds that he did not possess the requisite academic qualification to contest for the election.
The petition was premised on five grounds, among which is the allegation that Buhari lied about his academic qualification as well as schools attended in his Form 001 submitted to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) for the purpose of contesting the 2019 presidential election.
However, in the lead judgment delivered by Justice Garba, the tribunal held that the petitioners did not discharge the burden of proof and as such dismissed the petition.
Apart from the issue of alleged non-qualification and submission of information of fundamental falsehood to INEC by Buhari to aid his qualification, other issues the petitioners raised included deployment of electronic voting, over voting, substantial non-compliance with the electoral law as well as use of security agencies to rig the election in favour of Buhari.
The tribunal held that despite the 62 witnesses called by the petitioners, they were unable to prove their allegations against the conduct of the February 23 presidential poll.
Before delving on the merit of the petition, the tribunal had delivered ruling on eight motions filed by parties in the suit.
INEC filed three motions, praying the tribunal to strike out the petition or in the alternative expunge certain paragraphs of the petition for being incompetent and lacking in merit.
While Buhari and the APC filed two motions each seeking to strike out the petition, Atiku and PDP filed one in objection to the position of the APC in the petition.
During the ruling, the tribunal dismissed the motion by APC seeking the disqualification of Atiku on the ground that he was not a Nigerian.
The respondents had claimed that Jada, the birthplace of Atiku in 1946, was part of Cameroon and not part of Northern Nigeria.
But the tribunal dismissed the application on the ground that the respondents ought to have filed a cross-petition against the candidature of Atiku rather than raise the issue in his reply.
On the issue of qualification, the tribunal held that Buhari does not need to show proof or attach copy of his certificate to his INEC Form 001. The tribunal chairman held that the provision of the law was for the president to be educated up to secondary school level or its equivalent or worked in the public or private service for at least 10 years without blemishes.
The tribunal said evidence abound that West African School Certificate (WASC) was in existence in 1961 when Buhari claimed to have sat for the examination.
The tribunal also resolved that there is overwhelming evidence on the existence of Provincial Secondary School, Katsina in 1961 before it later transformed into Government College.
Quoting a press statement released in 2014 by Brigadier-General Olaleye Olaniyi (rtd), the then Secretary of Army Board on Buhari's certificate issue, the tribunal held that Atiku failed to call the army spokesman to testify in the petition.
Justice Garba held that from the totality of the statement of the former army spokesman, there was a presumption that Buhari had certificates because the army itself produced a recommendation of the former principal of the Katsina Provincial Secondary School that the president sat for six subjects in WAEC and expressed optimism Buhari would perform well if enlisted into the army in 1962.
The tribunal, therefore, agreed that the inability of Buhari to attach photocopies of his credentials to the INEC Form CF 001 should not be misconstrued as not having certificate because the petitioners failed to prove that he did not have the certificate.
On the issue of alleged perjury, the tribunal disagreed with the petitioners on the ground that Buhari did not swear to an affidavit to specifically make claim of depositing his certificates with the army board as envisaged by the relevant laws on election.
The tribunal held that the fact that Buhari made claim of submitting his credentials to the army at the point of his enlistment in 1962 could not by law translate into lying on oath as alleged by the petitioners.
The tribunal delved extensively on the merit and otherwise of Atiku's petition and rejected the claim that Buhari was not duly elected by majority of lawful votes cast in the February 23 presidential election.
The tribunal held that the petitioners ought to use polling booth by polling booth to give correct and authentic final election results, adding that it was not enough for Atiku and PDP to have tendered election results from the bar only but it is incumbent on them to call witnesses to establish their allegations, adding that the 62 witnesses called by the petitioners did not disprove forms EC8A, EC8B, EC8C and EC8D.
Justice Garba said when words of statute are not ambiguous they must be given their ordinary meaning, adding that in the instant case, Atiku and PDP did not establish how the use of INEC election manual and guidelines substantially affected the collation of election results as evidence adduced by petitioners' witnesses have no bearing on the petition itself.
The tribunal held that the evidence that election results were altered, depleted and manipulated against the PDP's candidate was caught by section 37 of the Evidence Act as they are manifestly unreliable hearsay that cannot in any way be classified as expert opinions.
In resolving the controversy over INEC's server, the tribunal said the petitioners were unable to establish the existence of a server and that results were transmitted into it through the use of smart card reader.
The tribunal also held that the petitioners could not adduce concrete evidence that the results of the election were electronically collated and transmitted as alleged by the petitioners, adding that the evidence of the petitioners' expert witness contradicted the petition itself because the witness admitted obtaining his information from a whistle blower site, whose identity he could not ascertain.
On the issue of over voting, massive rigging, harassment and intimidation, arbitrary arrest, the tribunal held that failure to join the security personnel alleged to have committed the crime as respondents to defend themselves was fatal to the petition.
Justice Garba in the unanimous decision held that any decision to look into the allegations would violate Section 36 of the 1999 Constitution on fair hearing.
In the final analysis, the tribunal chairman held that the petition was without merit, liable for dismissal and was consequently dismissed in its entirety without cost against the petitioners.
Reacting to the verdict of the panel outside the court, lead counsel to the petitioners, Dr. Levy Uzuokwu (SAN), said his client would appeal the tribunal's decision.
He thanked Nigerians for their overwhelming support, adding that they have truly been encouraging.
"Well we have done our job; the court has also done its own job. First of all, let me congratulate the millions of Nigerians that have supported us, it encourages us and we are happy about it," he said.
When asked about the next step for the petitioners, Uzuokwu, however, responded this way: "Certainly I don't think that is the end of the journey."
Also speaking, lead counsel to the APC, Prince Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), described the judgment as a good one and commended the justices for the efforts in delivering a quality judgment.
"The justices worked hard to ensure the matter didn't lapse, hardly any aspect of the case that they didn't touch; there is no aspect that they didn't resolve. I am satisfied with it," he said.
PDP Rejects Verdict, to Head to Supreme Court
The PDP, however, rejected the judgment, describing it as provocative, barefaced subversion of justice and direct assault on the integrity of the nation's justice system. It said it would be heading to the Supreme Court to appeal the judgment.
The party in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Mr. Kola Ologbondiyan, said it was particularly shocked that the tribunal failed to point to justice despite the flawless evidence laid before it, showing that Buhari was not only unqualified to contest the election but also did not score the majority of valid votes at the polls.
The PDP added that it finds it bewildering that a court of law could validate a clear case of perjury and declaration of false information in a sworn affidavit, as firmly established against Buhari, even in the face of incontrovertible evidence.
It said: "The party is also rudely shocked that the court took over the roles of the respondents' lawyers, who clearly abandoned their pleadings by refusing to call evidence in defence of the petition. The court raked up all manner of excuses to make up for the yawning gaps occasioned by the total absence of any evidence from the respondents.
"Nigerians and the international community watched in utter disbelief when the tribunal ruled that one need not provide a copy or certified true copy of educational certificate such individual claimed to possess, contrary to established proof of claims of certification.
"The party notes as strange that the court even went ahead to provide rationalisations in favour of President Buhari, even when all hard facts before it shows that he did not possess the claimed educational certificate and that the Army was not in possession of his WAEC certificate as claimed in the affidavit he deposed to in his presidential nomination form."
It also described as shocking that the court approved the declaration of Buhari as winner of the election despite evidence of illegalities, manipulations, alterations and subtraction of valid votes allegedly belonging to Atiku.
The PDP, however, encouraged Nigerians to remain calm and not to lose hope or surrender to despondency or self-help, as its lawyers are upbeat in obtaining justice at the Supreme Court.
Buhari Dedicates Victory to Nigerians, Extends Hand of Fellowship to Opposition
Welcoming the judgment, the president, in a statement by his Special Adviser (Media and Publicity), Mr. Femi Adesina, described it as victory for Nigerians who trooped out to give him a fresh mandate for a second term in office.
"Good conscience fears no evil report. I was unperturbed all along, because I knew Nigerians freely gave us the mandate. We are now vindicated," the president said.
He dedicated the victory to God and to Nigerians while also commending the judiciary for "dispensing justice without fear or favour."
Buhari also extended a hand of fellowship to those who had felt aggrieved at the outcome of the election, and went to court, noting that it was within their democratic rights.
He, however, said with the judgment of the tribunal, "it is time for the country to move forward as one cohesive body, putting behind us all bickering and potential distractions over an election in which Nigerians spoke clearly and resoundingly."
APC: It's Victory for Rule of Law, Decency
The APC also hailed the judgment, describing it as a victory for rule of law and decency.
APC National Publicity Secretary, Mallam Lanre Issa-Onilu, in a statement yesterday, commended the judiciary for refusing to succumb to what he called the "PDP subterfuge."
According to him, the judgment validated the decision of most Nigerians to do away with the past as expressed in their overwhelming votes in the 2019 elections.
"We note the painstaking efforts and thoroughness of the justices of the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal in arriving at their decision. Today's (yesterday) judgment, no doubt, would go down in the annals of our nation as the longest and detailed, spanning almost 10 hours.
"The PDP and Atiku's petition was largely hinged on the educational qualification of President Muhammadu Buhari and tales of an Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) server and allegations of electronic transmission of election results. This was rightly dismissed by the tribunal for lacking in merit," he said.
He said from the outset, the ruling party was not perturbed over the PDP and Atiku's petition, which it said would go down in Nigeria's history as the most frivolous.
Issa-Onilu added that the position of the party has now been justified that the PDP and Atiku's petition was a complete waste of time.
He stated that APC's victory at the presidential poll and the election tribunal represented the collective desire as a people to remain focused on the progressive growth and development of the country's economy, fight against corruption and providing security.