Protests by Nigerian women and civil society organisations (CSOs) yesterday trailed the withdrawal of the president of the Court of Appeal, Justice Zainab Bulkachuwa, from the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal.
Bulkachuwa, who until yesterday was the chairman of the tribunal, stepped down because of the allegation of the likelihood of bias levelled against her by the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its presidential candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar.
Although the five-man panel of the tribunal, in a unanimous ruling, dismissed the application, Bulkachuwa said that she was withdrawing for “personal reasons.”
In their spontaneous reactions to the development, Women In Nigeria (WIN), the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (ClSLAC), and women lawyers claimed that Bulkachuwa was intimidated to take the decision. They said that it was a furtherance of the continued marginalisation of Nigerian women in every facet of the society.
Justice Olabisi Ige, who read the lead ruling of the tribunal, held that the relationship between Justice Bulkachuwa and her husband, Adamu Bulkachuwa, a senator-elect, and her son, Aliyu Abubakar, a governorship aspirant, both on the platform of the All Progressives Congress (APC), was not weighty enough to infer that she would be biased in her handling of the proceedings of the panel.
Ige also ruled that inference or likelihood of bias could not be inferred from the speech delivered by Justice Bulkachuwa at the inaugural sitting of the tribunal on May 8, 2019 that she had pre-judged the petitioners’ petition.
All the members of the panel, including Justice Bulkachuwa, agreed with the lead ruling.
Despite the ruling, Justice Bulkachuwa said: “I am recusing myself from the panel for personal reasons.”
She, however, expressed joy that the matter had been settled “based on facts and law” so that “another female judge will no longer have to face what I have faced.”
The Appeal Court president disclosed that a new presiding justice would be appointed for the panel, adding that the four remaining members of the panel would continue with the hearing of the preliminary applications pending the appointment of the new head of the panel.
The applicants prayed the court for an order that Justice Bulkachuwa, who headed the panel hearing the petition No: CA/PEPC/2019, be recused from further sitting or participating in the proceedings and be replaced by another justice of the Court of Appeal.
Through their lead counsel, Dr. Livy Uzoukwu, the PDP and Atiku submitted that Justice Bulkachuwa is the wife of Hon. Adamu Mohammed Bulkachuwa, a prominent card-carrying member of the APC and the senator-elect for Bauchi North Senatorial District on the platform of the ruling party, which is the 3rd respondent in their petition.
The applicants also contended that Bulkachuwa is the biological mother of Aliyu Haidar Abubakar, also a prominent card-carrying member of the APC, who was a gubernatorial aspirant in Gombe State at the last general elections on the platform of APC.
They submitted that being the wife and mother of prominent members of the APC, having a common interest with the party and Buhari who is the subject matter of their petition, there was the likelihood of bias if Bulkachuwa remained the presiding justice or member of the tribunal.
“At the inaugural session of the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal, while delivering her inaugural speech, Hon. Justice Bulkachuwa stated as follows: ‘Elections are held in Nigeria every four years into elective positions. No matter how well the election is conducted, there are bound to be complaints…’.
“By making that remark, it would appear that Hon. Justice Bulkachuwa had prejudged the presidential election as well as concluded that the petition was one of the complaints that came up ‘no matter how well the election is conducted.
“Justice must not only be done but must be manifestly seen to have been done,” the applicants argued.
WIN, ClSLAC Decry Gender Discrimination
To WIN and ClSLAC, the agitation and the eventual exit of Bulkachuwa from the tribunal were actions taken too far against her and Nigerian women.
The right groups described the incident as unfair and undemocratic move to undermine the nation’s efforts at attaining inclusive, participatory and equal opportunity in both public and private spheres.
In a joint statement signed by the executive director, CISLAC, Auwal Ibrahim Musa and Ms Chioma Kanu of WIN, the groups said that the anti-Bulkachuwa campaign was unjustified and the excuse that her spouse is a member of a political party was not well thought out
Musa said: ‘’We are seriously concerned about the continued marginalisation, unchecked discrimination and abuse of women despite the existence of the ratified protocols, National Gender Policy, Violence Against Women Prohibition Act, Gender and Affirmative Action and Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which guarantee comprehensive rights for women, including the right to adequately engage in the political process, socioeconomic space, health, justice system in both public and private spheres,
‘’We oppose the action and agitation by some groups to push out Justice Bulkachuwa as chairman of the presidential election petitions panel.
‘’In view of the fact that there is no established evidence of malpractice against her, it is unfair to deny her this position. We call for total respect for the rights, dignity, freedom and solidarity for womenfolk at all levels. We also urge all well-meaning Nigerians to kick against gender discrimination and encourage gender justice,’’ the statement read.
Also, women rights activist and member of the International Federation of Wome Lawyers (FIDA), Hajiya Binta Aminu, described the withdrawal of Justice Bulkachuwa from the tribunal as “unfortunate”.
According to her, Bulkachuwa was simply intimidated to submission.
She said: ‘’We have always been at the forefront of women’s rights in this country. Women can no longer be relegated to the background. If what happened today (yesterday) is not an intimidation of women, then, I don’t know any other description to give to it.’’
Hajiya Aminu said that the era when women were relegated to the background had past.
‘’The application for her to recuse herself is uncalled for because the case before her has nothing to do with her family. The earlier we learn to do the right thing in this country, the better for all of us,’’ she said.
Section 239 (1) (a) stipulates that the Court of Appeal has the original jurisdiction to hear and determine questions as to whether any person has been validly elected to the office of the president or the vice president of Nigeria.
Section 9 of the Sixth Schedule of the 1999 Constitution (as amended) empowers the president to appoint the chairman and members of the Election Petition Tribunals and Section 145 of the Electoral Act 2010 states that president of the Court of Appeal may issue practice directions for election tribunals.
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