[BREAKING]: Presidential Election Tribunal: Presiding Judge Makes First Comment As Hearing Begins

At the outset of their challenge of the February 25, 2023 election outcome at the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT), the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its standard bearer in the highly disputed election, Atiku Abubakar has filed a motion on notice, requesting for a live broadcast of the tribunal proceedings. This request also got the support of the Labour Party’s (LP) presidential candidate, Peter Obi, who is also challenging INEC’s declaration of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Bola Tinubu as the winner of the presidential election. The presidential election stirred controversy over compliance with the Electoral Act and the electronic transmission of results, among other issues. There was a consensus among observers that the election was flawed.

In an application for a live telecast of tribunal proceedings filed by their team of lawyers led by Chris Uche, SAN, the PDP, and Atiku prayed to the court for an order directing the court’s registry and the parties on modalities for admission of media practitioners and their equipment into the courtroom, stressing that “Televising court proceedings is not alien to this court, and will enhance public confidence.” Dr. Levi Ozoukwu SAN, who is the lead counsel to Obi, stated that his client and the Labour Party would give their full support to Atiku and PDP at the hearing of the application.

The respondents, which included the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Tinubu, and APC, acknowledged that they had been served the application, disclosing that they would respond accordingly and within the timeframe permitted by the law. As they weigh their responses, it may be in their interest to prefer a transparent trial, as that will go a long way to correct the notion that the people’s mandate was stolen. When the people are exposed to a first-hand account of how the election produced a winner, legitimacy will be largely conferred on the government.

It is heartwarming to hear the chairman of the five-member tribunal, Justice Haruna Tsammani, assure that the application for a live broadcast of the proceedings “will be considered together with the other issues.” Without prejudice to what their Lordships ultimately decide on the matter, the Nigerian judiciary won’t be delving into uncharted territory by toeing this path. Long before 1999, when the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, popularly known as the Oputa Panel, was constituted with its proceedings televised to millions of homes, Nigerians experienced a semblance of live broadcast of court proceedings under colonial rule until politicians jettisoned the practice upon the nation’s independence.

However, in 2008, proceedings from the tribunal that sat on the case of then General Muhammadu Buhari and the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP), Alhaji Atiku Abubakar, and the Action Congress (AC) challenging the election of late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua were televised live to members of the public only on the judgment day. Some states like Oyo, Ondo, Kogi, and Edo have since followed this template of live telecast of judgment on election petitions. While the cost implications for media houses regarding expensive and expended airtimes have been raised in some quarters, it is gratifying that the broadcast stations are not complaining. We believe that nothing is too much to give in service of democracy in Nigeria.

Nigerians aren’t just interested but invested in how the courts determine who won the 2023 presidential election. This interest flows from the unprecedented participation of the people in the electoral process over which citizens lost their lives, limbs, and livelihoods. The passion is such that there has been criticism of the current system where candidates declared by INEC as winners are sworn into office before cases against their election are concluded. Aside from the candidates, voters who believe that their preferred candidates were rigged out also feel robbed and just as the petitioners deserve a blow-by-blow view of the courts’ redress of irregularities that made their ballots worthless.

Of course, these electorates, just like other members of the public, are free to be at the tribunal, but how is that possible when the courtroom can barely seat 200 people? With the PEPT sitting in Abuja, millions of Nigerians with a stake and interest in the election are widely dispersed within and without the country. Even if those in the FCT attempt to attend the tribunal sitting, there won’t be room for them. Yet, it is common knowledge how the entire three-arm zone of Abuja’s central area is cordoned off whenever the Court of Appeals attends to high-profile cases. This is despite the fact that “an integral part of the constitutional duty of the court to hold proceedings in public is at discretion to allow public access to proceedings either physically or by electronic means,” as pointed out by the applicants.

Shortly after the elections, the term “go to court” was used derogatorily to depict the people’s lack of confidence in the judiciary. This seemed to be the singsong of politicians who were suspiciously returned as winners as if the judiciary was no longer the last hope of the common man. As it were, the judiciary has since come under trial. Allowing for a regulated televising of the proceedings will go a long way in boosting the confidence of Nigerians in the courts and guarantee judicial credibility. Agreed that there may be witnesses who will not agree to testify in the full glare of millions of eyeballs. In such a situation, the counsels can file an application for such sessions not to be beamed live.

Naija News submits that the maxim “justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done” does also apply in the literal sense and should be the case here. Nigerian judges should emulate their Ghanaian and Kenyan counterparts who allow cameras of media organizations in their courtrooms to show that they have nothing to hide. The nascent political awakening among Nigerians has been widely commended and nourished. This consciousness will be deepened when there is a live transmission of what transpires at the tribunal. After all, Section 36 (1) and (3) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria provides that judicial proceedings should be conducted in public.

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