The Peoples Democratic Party and its candidate in the 2019 presidential election, Atiku Abubakar, will on Thursday (today) file a formal application before the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal asking for the withdrawal of the President of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, from the five-man tribunal on the grounds of likelihood of bias.
The Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal has, therefore, fixed May 22 for the hearing of an application by the PDP and Abubakar.
The PDP had earlier in a letter sent to Bulkachuwa’s office on May 9 asked her to withdraw from the panel due to the status of her husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, as a senator-elect on the platform of the All Progressives Congress, the party whose victory at the February 23 poll is being challenged by the PDP at the tribunal.
Following the petitioners’ insistence on Wednesday that Bulkachuwa must recuse herself from the panel, the tribunal directed them to file a formal application for her disqualification as a member of the tribunal.
The application is to be heard and ruled upon in the open court.
Bulkachuwa appeared to have initially overlooked the earlier letter sent by the PDP asking her to withdraw from the panel until the petitioners’ lead counsel, Dr Livy Uzoukwu (SAN), requested a meeting between the panel members and the representatives of the legal teams of parties to the case on Wednesday.
Uzoukwu made the meeting request shortly after lawyers announced appearance at the beginning of Wednesday’s proceedings.
Applying for the meeting, he noted that he had earlier before Wednesday’s sitting started, informed the legal teams of the respondents about his intention to call for the meeting with the tribunal members.
The lawyers representing the respondents – the Independent National Electoral Commission, President Muhammadu Buhari and the APC – did not oppose the request for the meeting.
Chief Wole Olanipekun (SAN) led Buhari’s legal team, Mr Yunus Usman (SAN) led the INEC’s team while Lateef Fagbemi (SAN), led the APC’s team of lawyers.
After a brief conversation between the bench and the bar, it was agreed that each of the parties to the petition would present two lawyers to meet with the Justices in chambers.
The agreement entitled Atiku and the PDP to two lawyers each, making a total of 10 lawyers that attended the meeting.
At about 10.55am, the selected lawyers departed the courtroom for the meeting which took place at the conference room of the President of the Court of Appeal’s chambers.
The lawyers who participated in the meeting returned to the courtroom about 11.42am to brief their various team members about what transpired.
At 12pm, the tribunal resumed sitting.
Announcing the tribunal’s decision, Justice Bulkachuwa said Uzoukwu requested that she should recuse herself from the panel at the meeting.
She said the request by Uzoukwu was based on the reasons cited by the PDP in its letter earlier sent to her on May 9.
Justice Bulkachuwa said since the matter was already in the public domain, the panel had decided to have the issue treated openly.
She said, “An application was made that I recuse myself from the panel for reasons given in the letter dated May 8, 2019 by the chairman of the PDP.
“This matter is already in the public domain. We however hold the view that since the matter has been brought to the public domain, you have to make an application in the open court and we will deliver a ruling on it.”
Responding, Uzoukwu said his team would file a formal application to that effect on Thursday.
The respondents’ lawyers said they would need time to respond to the application.
The tribunal then directed the petitioners to file their application and adjourned till May 22 for its hearing.
In its letter received in the Court of Appeal President’s office in Abuja, on May 9, the PDP had alleged that as the chairman of the five-man panel, Bulkachuwa would likely be biased in the handling of the tribunal’s proceedings because of her ties to family members belonging to the APC.
The party, in the letter which was signed by its National Chairman, Uche Secondus, and its National Secretary, Umaru Tsauri, specifically said Bulkachuwa’s husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, contested and won the Bauchi North Senatorial District election on the platform of the APC during the February 23, 2019 polls.
The party also complained that Bulkachuwa could have by a comment she made during the inaugural sitting of the tribunal on Wednesday, prejudged its petition challenging the outcome of the February 23, 2019 presidential election.
It stated that Bulkachuwa’s claim in her speech to the effect that there would always be complaints no matter how an election was well-conducted had “rocked” its confidence in the panel led by her.
Secondus and the National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Kola Ologbondiyan, attended Wednesday’s proceedings.
They sat with the pioneer Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission and top member of the APC, Nuhu Ribadu, who represented Buhari in the gallery during the hearing.
There was a heavy presence of security personnel within and around the Court of Appeal in Abuja, venue of the tribunal, on Wednesday.
The security personnel comprising operatives of the Nigeria Police and the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, barricaded both ends of the stretch of the road passing in front of the court.
They prevented some of Atiku’s supporters from gaining entry into the premises of the court.
Only members of staff of the court, journalists, lawyers, litigants and others working within the premises were allowed into the premises.
The supporters wore branded T-shirts bearing the pictures of Atiku and his vice-presidential candidate, Peter Obi.
The youths, under the aegis of the National Support for Atiku Mandate, are demanding that the judiciary avoid interference in deciding Atiku’s petition.
The protest forced armed policemen to cordon off all roads leading to the Court of Appeal complex located within the Three Arms Zone.
The roads were blocked with police patrol vans, forcing motorists to search for alternative routes.
As of 11am, our correspondents noticed that the protesters were restricted to the front of the Office of the Head of the Civil Service of the Federation, close to one of the gates leading into the Presidential Villa, Abuja.
They were sharing stickers with different inscriptions to motorists.
Some of the inscriptions read, “Judiciary, shun interference and preserve our democracy,” #Istand4Justice and #IstandwithAtiku.
They held placards and banners demanding that Atiku be declared the winner of the February 23 presidential election.