By EMMANUEL OGEBE, Esq
Right from the parking lot, things were different today. Inside the courtroom, the Petitioner himself, ex-VP Atiku was seated in the Plaintiff’s left side row – his first appearance at any of the half dozen sessions I had attended in June and July.
Even the media row on the right had a dignitary I recognized from TV only as “Gbenga.” Truly this was the end of days for this trial.
I pondered the irony of life that the Petitioner was in court ironically like CBN Guv Efiemele is now also in court.
As VP, Atiku had occupied the residence designated for the Chief Justice of Nigeria beside the land allocated for the headquarters of the Court of Appeal. Rumor had it that he held up the building of the court because it was next to “his” residence.
The Bar association even had a public row with him over the CJN’s residence.
One day, someone came to meet my dad (then a Justice of the court of appeal) concerning a matter he was hearing that was purportedly of “interest” to the VP.
Nonplussed, my dad told the messenger that he was unconcerned by the VP’s interest and that even if he was, much less so for a person who had blocked the building of the court of appeal headquarters.
Coupled with a palace Cold War with the president, the VP ultimately moved out of the CJN’s house and the court of appeal headquarters was built.
Today seated in its midst seeking Justice, I wondered if he remembered that truly the judiciary is the last hope of the common man and not so common men too like Emefiele was now discovering. Just months ago, he defied court orders on currency but how he’s lamenting disobedience of court orders for his release…
The court announced that in consideration of the cooperation of the counsel in the case, they were extending the time allotted to each counsel from 10 minutes to 20 to address the court.
Once again I was impressed by the fairness of the court. In the preceding hearings, the court had alternated the parties’ cases between morning and afternoon shifts each week. This way no one would be disadvantaged by permanently being on morning session or afternoon session.
Advantages of the alternation included that issues argued and resolved in the morning shift paved the way for those in the afternoon to sail free.
In fact the sitting of the court today, August 1st, following the expired deadline to file documents on Friday July 8th, I was given to understand was a strategic move to finalize the hearings before the looming strike on August 2nd. It seemed the justices didn’t want force minor (act of man) to disrupt their sensitive duty.
So given their penchant for fairness and clear commitment to the task at hand, what followed was quite out of character.
After all the three respondents counsel had adopted their 40-page final addresses, the court took on Petitioner’s counsel Chris Uche, SAN for submitting 40-page addresses to each of the three respondents thereby totaling 120 pages.
It seemed to me obvious that this was what was to be expected. INEC, Tinubu and APC all had similar issues but different approaches, emphasis and arguments. It would be manifestly unfair to expect Petitioners to answer only one because of the 40page limit and not answer the other two.
For whatever reasons, the argument raged on for a while and Uche made the observation that the Respondents had cumulatively filed 120 pages of final addresses plus 30pages of Objections and then replies to his own addresses thus swamping him.
At a point, Uche put his put down that if he was forced to abandon some of his final addresses then he would be denied a fear hearing. At this juncture the court reached a compromise to resolve this issue when it became clear that there was indeed an additional address which he had withdrawn but wasn’t properly withdrawn.
For me, the issue here is the preponderance of respondents counsel made the trial process unnecessarily unwieldy and elongated. It was essentially an uneven match of three against one.
There were numerous lawyers in court some of whose value addition was negligible to doubtful.
Some of the junior lawyers in wigs and gowns beside me where busy texting on their phones oblivious to the historicity of the rare moment they were privileged to watch which hundreds of millions of Nigerians could not see and which would not be recorded for posterity.
Ironically during the lunch break in between the PDP and Labor case, I returned to the court only to find my seat had been taken by the disinterested baby lawyers after I traveled three continents to get here!
Packing the courtroom with numerous lawyers is neither helpful or useful if they’re just oxygen-consumer texters.
In the US, we have a couple of lawyers representing a client – one is first chair and the other is second chair and both have speaking prerogative. In Nigeria, you have 25 SANs and five others for one party and sometimes only one speaks. At least an hour was lost each day announcing appearances which amounts to days and delays when totaled up. Time could be saved by trimming this down.
I will confess that jetlag took a toll on me and so my commentary will be limited for now. Also somehow people in the US I spoke saw and heard a lot about what transpired so I won’t bore with a rehash.
One thing though my colleague pointed out to me at lunch was that the respondents lawyers did not object to the Petitioners’ writing a response to each of their final addresses.
Said my learned colleague, “if the court had denied petitioner the right to reply to all three, it would given him a cheap on appeal. That’s why you saw Olanipekun did not join the court in opposing PDP’s multiple final addresses.”
Once again, Uche stood his ground and succeeded in his advocacy – paving the way for LP who came after to sail smoothly with their 120pages unqueried.
I will discuss some of the points raised in both Labour and PDP’s cases in my next installment as they’re quite similar and sometimes it difficult to isolate who said what.
Another example today was when Uche respondent for addressing the issue of double nomination which was not raised by them but was raised in a different case.
The court closed with Justice Stephen stating that Nigerians are “prayer warriors” so they should pray for them.
He said the major part was now over. For the lawyers but arguably not for them.
The court gave one an impression of responsibility and sobriety.
In my mind, I knew that their decision hereafter would either make history or make misery. I surmised that the cost of traveling was worth knowing what arguments would result in Misery or History.
I also couldn’t help wondering if Atiku won in court, whether he would disobey court orders like Buhari did.
•Being Part 12 of the 2023 Election Court Diary of Emmanuel Ogebe, Esq, a prominent US-based international human rights lawyer, judiciary expert and Nigerian pro-democracy advocate with the US NIGERIA LAW GROUP in Washington. This month, he marks the 27th anniversary of his release from abduction and torture by Gen. Abacha for demanding an investigation of the assassination of pro-democracy icon Kudirat Abiola over the June 12 election annulment. His advocacy led to the naming of Kudirat Corner by Nigeria house in New York, the US designation of Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization and International Criminal Court Prosecutor’s determination of crimes against humanity in Nigeria, amongst others.