It was not the pressure of guilt that made presiding justice of the presidential election petition tribunal Zainab Bulkachuwa to quit yesterday. She was secure in the rightness of staying on the panel if she chose.
For the panel dismissed the application filed by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate in the general elections, Alhaji Abubakar Atiku, against Bulkachuwa.
The PDP and Atiku had last week filed an application against Bulkachuwa, asking her to recuse herself from the panel over a likelihood of bias.
But the panel held yesterday that after ruminating on the evidence and submissions of the petitioners, it found they had not established enough reason for Bulkachuwa to recuse herself.
The presiding justice nevertheless announced her decision to step down from adjudicating on the matter. She said she took the action for personal reasons, and so that another female justice would not face similar discrimination. She disclosed that a new chairman of the panel would be appointed.
Four other members of the panel will continue to hear the matter pending the appointment of a new chairman.
The proceedings yesterday were marred by an almost four-hour delay. The tribunal, after listening to arguments from the parties, had adjourned, to reconvene at 2:00 p.m. For unknown reasons however, members of the panel failed to reappear in the courtroom, leaving lawyers bewildered.
At the resumed sitting, counsel to PDP and Atiku, Levi Uzoukwu, informed the tribunal of a 19-paragraph affidavit in support of their application and a further affidavit of four paragraphs filed on May 21, containing one exhibit. He further drew the tribunal’s attention to exhibits attached to the affidavit.
Uzoukwu argued that Bulkachuwa’s husband, a senator-elect, will become a member of APC national convention in June. He also referred the chairman of the tribunal to a similar judgment she delivered and called for caution, to ensure that the integrity of the judiciary is protected.
But counsel to the first respondent (INEC), Yunus Usman, asked the tribunal to discountenance the application. He told the tribunal that a counter-affidavit was filed to that effect on May 20.
He referred the tribunal to Section 42 of the constitution and submitted that Exhibits Two to Four, annexed to the applicants’ affidavit, were of no effect.
He argued that the constitution condemns all forms of discrimination, and as such, it was wrong for the applicants to discriminate against the justice on the basis of marriage.
“If the reason for asking Justice Bulkachuwa to rescue herself was because she is married to a politician, how many other female judges are married to politicians? Should we then ask them to resign?
“We must be very careful not to allow politicians to destroy the judiciary. Many judicial officers are married to many politicians, and if that is the basis for asking her to recuse herself, it will affect so many judicial officers,” Usman said, urging the tribunal to dismiss the application.
Counsel to Buhari (second respondent), Chief Wole Olanipekun, held that it was within the discretion of the president to constitute the panel and the justices to serve therein. He also noted that there was no law stipulating that five justices must sit at the panel. According to him, no individual could impose his own authority or will on the court or on its president.
Counsel to the third respondent (APC), Lateef Fagbemi, began by describing the application as cheap blackmail and unmeritorious. But he switched his stance suddenly and began to eulogise Bulkachuwa’s virtues. He recalled that she has only one year to retirement and admonished her to “leave the matter.” The U-turn left many confused on where he actually stood on the issue.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy and non-governmental organisation, Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA), has asked the acting Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, to resign immediately, following the suit brought against him over alleged falsification of age.
It said the National Judicial Council (NJC) has already established precedent that if the head of the judicial arm faces a strong legal challenge; he must quit or be suspended pending the determination of the matter.
The organisation disclosed this yesterday in a statement by its national coordinator, Emmanuel Onwubiko, and national media affairs director, Miss Zainab Yusuf.
“Justice Walter Onnoghen was forced out of office even before an allegation of failure to declare assets correctly was determined by a highly compromised Code of Conduct Tribunal. Tanko Muhammad must be suspended until such a time that he is either cleared or the matter determined, one way or the other. If he is convicted, then he should be fired,” HURIWA said.
It added: “Age falsification is a disease that has eaten deep into Nigerian civil service and labour market. The Nigerian labour force is filled with senile and overage employees.
“This continues to affect production adversely in our institutions, establishments and businesses. Even though there is no clear cut definition of age falsification as a crime in the Nigeria constitution, a person can still be sent to jail for it because it is an offence to falsify any document.”
A businessman, Tochi Michael, had dragged the acting CJN before an Abuja High Court in suit No. FCT/HC/BW/CV/79/2019.