By Dirisu Yakubu
While awaiting the judgment of the Presidential Elections Petitions Court, the Peoples Democratic Party presidential candidate in the 2023 election, Atiku Abubakar, takes his battle against President Bola Tinubu’s victory to a United States court. DIRISU YAKUBU writes on the views of lawyers and other Nigerians on the case
Perhaps the 2023 presidential election outcome will go down in history as one of the most keenly contested in Nigeria. The poll held on February 25 saw the Independent National Electoral Commission declare Bola Tinubu the winner of the election after polling a total of 8,794,726 votes. Atiku Abubakar and Peter Obi of the Peoples Democratic Party and the Labour Party, respectively, settled for second and third spots on the log after securing 6,984,520 and 6,101,533 votes, respectively. Former Kano State governor and presidential candidate of the New Nigeria People’s Party, Rabiu Kwankwaso, came in a distant fourth after garnering a total of 1,496,687 votes.
Showing their displeasure with the conduct of the exercise, the duo of Atiku and Obi filed petitions against the declaration of Tinubu, citing, among other things, the failure on the part of INEC to conduct the polls in substantial compliance with the Electoral Act, 2022.
While Obi and Atiku are both challenging Tinubu’s eligibility to run for the office in the first place, Obi anchored his argument on the fact that the former Lagos State Governor forfeited a total sum of $460,000 in the US in a drug-related case and also failed to secure 25 percent of votes cast in the Federal Capital Territory.
On July 11, Atiku took it a step further as he filed a petition seeking to obtain more information about Tinubu’s academic records at Chicago State University.
Documents sought by Atiku, through his attorney, Angela Liu, include records of Tinubu’s admission and acceptance at the university and dates of attendance, including degrees, awards, and honours he obtained while studying at the American varsity.
The former Nigeria’s Vice President informed the court in his petition that Tinubu subpoena was to test the truth and establish the correctness of his claims, adding that he is currently the President of Nigeria but faces a legion of petitions concerning his election and the authenticity of documents relating to his attendance at Chicago State University.
In a countermove, however, President Tinubu filed a motion to quash the subpoena before the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, Chicago, USA, against a fresh petition by Atiku.
Nigeria’s president, through his counsel, Victor Henderson, on July 19, asked the court to strike out Atiku’s petition, arguing that no judge of the court heard and granted Atiku the subpoena.
Tinubu further argued that the petition was invalid for providing only six days for compliance, which was less than 14 days provided under Rules 219 and 137 of the Illinois Supreme Court Rules.
In his words, the PDP chieftain engaged “in an “improper fishing expedition about a foreign public official utilising the Illinois court’s subpoena power.”
With many Nigerians wondering about the necessity or otherwise of going as far as the US in search of justice, a human rights lawyer and Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mike Ozekhome, has described Atiku’s move as a good development.
“It is a good development. The matter at issue is an international issue. It was the right thing to do,” he said.
Taking a different position is constitutional lawyer Kennedy Khanoba, who argued that unless the US court convicts President Tinubu, not much may come the way of Atiku.
Khanoba, Senior Partner, Khanoba and Khanoba, Abuja, premised his argument on the fact that if the Chicago-based university goes ahead to merely blame Tinubu for making false claims, that would not be enough to cost him the presidency back home in Nigeria.
He said, “If Tinubu is not convicted in the United States, this petition would amount to a waste of time. If Chicago State University comes up to say that the man did not attend the school and that he provided false information that would not be enough to nullify the election. Only a conviction would be enough because anyone convicted anywhere is prohibited from holding public office for a certain period. Again, we must get one thing clear: The ruling of a US court cannot be binding on Nigeria.”
Speaking further, Khanoba added that the case brought before Muhammadu Buhari, challenging him to make public his academic credentials, is likely to have an impact on the petitions more than Atiku’s decision to seek offshore justice.
He continued, “Let’s assume the university says it does not have records of Bola Tinubu as its student and that never a time was his name mentioned in the history of the institution. The man would return home and impress on the people that the minimum qualification for the Office of the President is the Senior School Certificate Examination or its equivalent. Now, this is where many people often get it wrong. The equivalent can be obtained through formal education or experience, and for a man who rose to the position of Treasurer at Mobil International, there is no way the argument would fly that he does not have a school certificate equivalent.”
Like Khanoba, political analyst, Jackson Ojo told The PUNCH that the sovereign status of Nigeria as an independent state would make Atiku’s search for justice abroad almost like an exercise in futility.
“I don’t know if the ruling of an American court can be binding on Nigeria. We are a sovereign nation. Being a member of the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union, the United Nations, and many others does not mean that Nigerian laws are subjugated to international laws or that our courts are inferior to theirs. If President Tinubu is indicted in the US court, there may be a problem, but whether that will influence the position of the tribunal and the courts here is another thing entirely,” he said.
In an exclusive interview with The PUNCH, Ojo said there are chances that the former Vice President got the best legal advice before embarking on the long trip to Chicago.
“Atiku is a political giant, a global figure, and I believe his legal advisers across the globe must have consulted enough before taking the decision to approach the US court for information on the academic history of Tinubu. But don’t forget that Atiku also sometimes had issues with the United States, but at the same time, he was a free man in Nigeria. No matter the ruling, I don’t think it will have anything to do with the elections we had in Nigeria,” he submitted.
A PDP chieftain and Atiku’s loyalist, Mustapha Shehu, in his contribution, urged Nigerians to be patient with the process, arguing that Atiku “is only trying to get evidence through the US court that has higher probated value than the one published by an investigative journalist, David Hundeyin. The evidence that Bola Tinubu was a female would be handy as additional evidence if the case gets to the Supreme Court.”
Meanwhile, the National Publicity Secretary of the LP, Obiorah Ifoh, told our correspondent that Obi did not petition any court in the United States but is asking the Presidential Election Petition Court to nullify INEC’s declaration of Tinubu as Nigeria’s President.
According to him, “Our candidate did not petition any court in the US concerning Tinubu. I think only Atiku did that. But what we are saying is that Mr Peter Obi should be declared the authentic winner of the election after winning a majority of lawful votes. “Despite the shenanigans perpetrated during the election, Obi still clearly won. We have provided the evidence to support our position, and we know that the learned justices will allow themselves to be guided by the evidence before arriving at a judgment. This is our position, and nothing can change it.”
On his part, Executive Director, of Transparency International in Nigeria, Auwal Rafsanjani, said he was not surprised that Atiku took the option to explore legal alternatives in the US. This is just as he described the development as an indication of a lack of confidence by some Nigerians in the nation’s legal system.
He said, “It is unfortunate that our judiciary seems to be suffering from a serious integrity crisis, and Nigerians are losing confidence in the independence and credibility of our legal system and judges’ commitment to delivering justice and fair judgment. This is a huge integrity question.
“We recall how Nigerian judges cleared James Ibori of corruption charges, but the same charges were presented to the United Kingdom judicial court, and he was found guilty and jailed.
So, it is not surprising to see Atiku approach the United States judicial system to seek a fair verdict on his case against the President, Bola Tinubu.”
According to Rafsanjani, who also heads the Board of Trustees of Amnesty International in Nigeria, “judicial corruption and abuse are big threats to democracy and justice in Nigeria. Many Nigerians have decided to stay away from our courts because of the commercial and corrupt judiciary system that denies the citizens fair trials.”
Also speaking, the Special Assistant on Public Communication to Atiku Abubakar, Mr Phrank Shaibu, simply said, “We are out to prove to the world beyond any reasonable doubt the facts of the matter. What we are saying is that you must be what you claim you are. It is as simple as that.”