President Muhammadu Buhari and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as well as other agencies involved in the 2019 presidential election case spent billions of naira pursuing and defending the case at the Presidential Election Petitions Tribunal (PEPT), checks by Daily Trust revealed.
The tribunal had on Wednesday last week dismissed the petition filed by the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, Atiku, challenging the election of President Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the February 23 presidential election. The judgement came after 177 days of legal battle in which Atiku, PDP, Buhari, APC and Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) deployed dozens of lawyers.
A lawyer who participated in the tribunal’s proceedings said he was aware the legal fees for all the parties could be up to N5bn. Findings by the Daily Trust revealed that PDP had 20 SANs and 11 other lawyers on its team.
APC had about 20 SANs and 50 other lawyers while INEC alongside some interested parties assembled 60 lawyers. Cost of filing a case at the tribunal was at a minimum of N5,000 and in some instances, it might cost up to N25,000 each, our findings showed. It was gathered that lawyers could charge between N5 to N10 billion to prosecute presidential election petition, depending on the nature of the case and the number of Senior Advocates of Nigeria (SAN) engaged in the matter.
The stakes in cases relating to presidential elections were often very high compared to governorship, national and state assembly petitions. Similarly, it was learnt that INEC also spent a substantial size of its budget on getting competent and adequate lawyers to defend and prosecute their cases at national and state levels.
INEC’s 2019 Election Project Plan showed that the electoral empire budgeted over N1.2bn for legal fees and other related matters, part of which would be expended on handling election cases by SANs and other lawyers apart from their in-house personnel who cannot handle one tenth of the cases involving the commission. The sum covered duty tour allowance and transport costs for the monitors at the hearing of election petitions and appeals, as well as the compilation and printing of reports of petitions and appeals.
The Chief Press Secretary to the INEC Chairman, Mr Rotimi Oyekanmi, said six lawyers were used in prosecuting the petition. “It is common knowledge that INEC has several cases in court arising from the various elections it conducted. We have over 800 cases in courts at the moment,” Oyekanmi said. But another source said some interested parties had hired over 50 lawyers who teamed up with those commissioned by INEC in order to strengthened their arguments.
Daily Trust reports that more than 15 applications and motions were filed at the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal, while 62 witnesses were invited. In most instances, petitioners that invited the witnesses shouldered their cost of transport, accommodation and feeding. More than 50, 000 documents were also tendered as exhibits of materials used for the election and paid for. These included ballot papers, Form EC8 series, INEC manuals, newspapers etc.
They were gathered and tendered from across 36 states. However, some lawyers who represented Atiku and PDP denied receiving huge fees, saying they offered their services almost free of charge. One of the lawyers who does not want to be named, debunked the claim that a lot of money was expended on the election petition, questioning how such an amount could exchange hands considering “the strict monitoring by the present regime.”
The source said majority of the lawyers appeared to defend the petition pro bono because they believed in Atiku’s ability to improve the lives of Nigerians. “This will not be the first time such thing (voluntary defence of clients by lawyers) happened,” he said. Another lawyer made reference to what happened in 2015.
“Remember when Buhari joined the race for the presidency in 2015, and the issue of his certificate came up, quite a number of SANs came out to rally round him, including the SAN who led his defence.” He, however, admitted that the situation had changed saying, “this time around, the legal battle was not free of charge, but you should know that it is not always all about money but what you believe in.”
Reacting to the allegation that Atiku had spent billions of naira in prosecuting his petition, Levy Uzoukwu (SAN) who was the lead counsel of the legal team, said people should disregard talks that such amount was expended to prosecute the case of the former vice president. He said, “The Buhari team made it an issue that we are in-charge of the media, the social media and mainstream media. Where is the money for them? Majority of the social media influencers came because of the passion they have for Nigeria.”
Also reacting, counsel to INEC, Yunus Ustaz Usman (SAN), said the information that they collected huge amounts was not true, adding that he will not tell even his mother his professional fee. Also, another counsel to the respondents debunked the claim and said no such amount in legal fees was paid. But he admitted that filing of processes costs up to N5,000 each, while certification of documents cost in the region of N10m.
Investigations revealed that what was spent in the last few months at the tribunal would not be the end of the battle, as lawyers who made a lot of money from political parties and politicians during the sitting would look forward to another fortune as the case moved to the Supreme Court. “This is because, as usual, political parties and their candidates are ready to spend any amount to ensure that they win elections either through the ballot box or through the courts,” a political analyst, Usaini Mohammed, said. “Also, remember that judges and other judicial officers receive some allowances…This makes prosecuting petitions very expensive,” he said.
Battle for democracy not cheap – Atiku
When contacted, Special Adviser to Atiku on Media Paul Ibe told our correspondent that a lot of money was spent at the tribunal. He however, could not be specific about the figures, saying he has no such information.“Well, I wouldn’t know that. I know much would have been spent but I don’t know exactly how much was spent. But I know it wouldn’t come cheap. The battle for democracy doesn’t come cheap; we know that. But I don’t have figures,” he said.
At the time of filing this report, PDP National Publicity Secretary, Kola Ologbondiyan, did not answer his calls or respond to a text message sent to him by our correspondent to establish how much the party spent on the case.
We can defend our expenditure – APC
Also reacting, the ruling APC said it can defend the source of the money spent at the tribunal “no matter the amount.” APC’s National Publicity Secretary, Malam Lanre Issa-Onilu, told Daily Trust on telephone that the party was running its activities from its based internally generated revenue. On the specific amount APC spent at the tribunal, Issa-Onilu said, “I don’t work in the finance department.
So, I don’t have an idea. Whatever we spend, on which I don’t know the figures, it is our money. It is internally generated revenue. Unlike the PDP, we didn’t go to any government agency or cover to get it. We can say that anywhere. Whatever the figure is, it’s our money.”
Why cost of litigation is high – CSOs
Speaking on the huge expenditure at the tribunal, the Lead Director, Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Eze Onyekpere, said election related spending in Nigeria, especially for presidential elections had always been very expensive. “For the President, the challenge would arise when he spends public resources to finance his defence of the petition; while for the petitioner who is not in government, he is spending his private money. The technical nature of the election petition process is what drives up the costs,” Onyekpere said.
On his part, the Chairman, Partners for Electoral Reform (PER), who is also the Convener of “Say No Campaign Nigeria (SNC-Nigeria)”, Ezenwa Nwagwu, said that while the tribunals oversight election and the electoral process, the concern should be if public funds were deployed for private gain.
The huge spending by politicians and government agencies at election tribunals, on top of the huge spending during the last elections, raises concern because of the economic hardship in the country, poor public infrastructure and social services as well as delay in implementing the new national minimum wage.