Nigeria’s social media space, last week, erupted with a controversy concerning a copy of the Presidential Election Petition Court (PEPC) judgement imprinted with the mark of President Bola Tinubu’s legal team.
The copy of the judgement having ‘Tinubu Presidential Legal Team’ on the top right corner of its over 700 pages and the stamps of the court at the lower end of its front page surfaced online about two to three days after the court delivered its verdict on 6 September.
It immediately offered the broader and raging debates about the credibility or otherwise of the verdict another red-hot angle.
A five-member panel of the court headed by Haruna Tsammani had on 6 September affirmed Mr Tinubu as duly elected as Nigeria’s president after a disputed election on 25 February.
The court dismissed three consolidated suits filed by Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Labour Party’s Peter Obi, and the Allied Peoples Movement (APM) to challenge Mr Tinubu’s victory.
The five-member court unanimously held that the petitioners failed to substantiate their claims of electoral malpractices and non-qualification amongst other issues against Mr Tinubu and Nigeria’s electoral commission, INEC.
Atiku and Mr Obi have vowed to challenge the judgement at the Supreme Court, the court with the final say on Nigeria’s presidential election disputes.
This has extended further into the near future the raging dispute over the election.
The appearance of the copy of the certified true copy (CTC) of the PEPC verdict bearing a mark of Mr Tinubu’s legal team has added fuel to the dispute.
The copy, apart from having ‘Tinubu Presidential Legal Team’ (TPLT) on all its pages, has on its front page the stamps of the PEPC and a court official, J.J Ekperobe, with a signature, date of payment for the CTC, and date of certification. The date of payment and the date of certification are both 8 September.
These features, apart from the controversial header, appear on other versions of the CTC in circulation.
Atiku, PDP’s claims
One of Atiku’s media aides, Phrank Shaibu, breathed a huge dose of life into the controversy in a statement that surmised what had been an online tirade.
He challenged the PEPC to “explain to Nigerians and the world why the header of Tinubu Presidential Legal Team was on CTC copies of its judgment.”
Mr Shaibu also trumpeted the speculations that preceded the court’s judgement that some legal eggheads within the APC contributed to the drafting of the judgement.
“After causing a needless delay in availing the PDP presidential candidate, Atiku Abubakar and his legal team Certified True Copies of its judgment, the Presidential Election Petition Court (PEPC) must explain to Nigerians and the world ambiguities around why copies of the judgement bear the header of the Tinubu Presidential Legal Team.”
In the weeks preceding the judgement, Nigeria’s cyberspace was inundated with claims that the immediate-past Minister of Works and former governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Fashola, who is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) and a top member of the ruling APC, was contracted to draft the judgement.
Mr Fashola has since denied the allegation and reported the matter to the police. The police in Abuja subsequently arrested a suspect, Chike Ibezim, who is being detained.
But, Babatunde Ogala, the coordinator of the TPLP – the umbrella body of lawyers that defended Mr Tinubu at the PEPC – denied the charge that the CTC of the verdict with the mark of his team was as it was issued by the court.
Mr Ogala, a SAN, said the copy of the judgement under reference was obtained clean from the PEPC registry, adding that it was only “watermarked” by his team before it was released to the public.
Header or watermark?
The controversial mark on the copy of the judgement has been variously described as both a watermark and a header.
PREMIUM TIMES observes that many choose either of the two words to describe it based on the side of the argument they belong to.
While the pro-Tinubu commentators describe it as a watermark, the opposition voices insist it is a header, which, according to Mr Shaibu, signifies the author of the document on which it appears.
A reference to the online Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, however, shows the controversial mark fits better into the description of a header.
The authoritative dictionary defines “watermark” as “a symbol or design in some types of paper, which can be seen when the paper is held against the light.”
On the other hand, it describes “header” as “a line or block of text that appears at the top of every page in a book or document”. This is more fitting for the mark.
But whatever it is called, with the aid of an array of easily accessible digital tools, either a header or a watermark can be superimposed on a document before or after it is made, experts say.
Who wrote the judgement?
Producing a court judgement is a mentally and physically draining exercise to varying degrees. This depends on the complexity of the case, the number of parties, the length of time the case takes, and amount of documents filed and judicial authorities cited.
It involves days and nights of research, review of documents and evidence cross-referenced with testimonies given during hearing, and endless writing by the judge, who is usually supported by research and clerical assistants.
A judgement can run into hundreds of pages like the one delivered by the PEPC.
Mr Shaibu said the header on the controversial copy of the PEPC’s judgement suggested that lawyers in Mr Tinubu’s team were the authors, implying that the five judges were merely handed the copies they read in open court.
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The suggestion is tantamount to saying that the five PEPC judges went to sleep for over a month after the conclusion of the hearing, only to wake up days or hours before the judgement and head straight to the courtroom to read the copies handed to them by Mr Tinubu’s legal team without prior review.
This is an extreme characterisation of judicial corruption which is, no doubt, a worrisome trend in Nigeria.
Lawyers say it would take not just a corrupt judge, but additionally, a chronically incompetent one, to stoop to the level of waiting for a party to a case to prepare a judgement for him or her to read.
The track records of at least, the most senior members of the PEPC panel with long years of prior practice as lawyers and subsequently over two decades of judicial experience from the High Court to the Court of Appeal bench, do not cast them in the mould of such a judge.
The opposition voices’ suggestion also implies that the Tinubu legal team’s header on the copy escaped the attention of the judges, their assistants who collated the opinions and transmitted them to the court’s registry, and the registry officials who carried out the last review of the copy before issuing it to the parties.
It is not more plausible either to assume that Tinubu’s legal team’s copy fraudulently crept into the court registry after the judgement had been delivered.
The question that arises from that is “Which end would it serve?”, especially when no one spotted any difference between what was read in the open court and what the CTC eventually contained.
Process of obtaining CTC of a court judgement
The standard process of obtaining a certified true copy of a court judgement in Nigeria does not give any room for a court to issue a document with a header associated with an external body or individuals, legal experts said.
To get a CTC of a court decision, a party or other interested members of the public has to send an application to the registry of the court.
The registry will then assess to determine the payable fee by the party interested in the CTC.
After the payment, a copy of the judgement bearing the stamp and date of release will then be given to the requesting party.
What is likely and not likely
The coordinator of Mr Tinubu’s legal team, Mr Ogala, said in his statement on the matter that lawyers from his and PDP’s teams were present at the point of issuing the CTC of the court judgement by the registry on 8 September.
According to Mr Ogala, the PDP’s team got the first copy to be issued by the court, before his team was given the subsequent one.
He added that none of the copies of the judgement issued by the court to the parties bore the mark of his team.
This is a point of divergence in the controversy.
Mr Shaibu said PDP’s team, despite repeated demands, only got its certified copy of the judgement hours after Mr Tinubu’s team got theirs on 8 September. He suggested that the delay in issuing PDP its copy was the court’s ploy to buy time to clean up the accidentally issued copy with the controversial header for reissuance to the parties to the case.
But in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Umar Bangari, the chief registrar of the Court of Appeal, the court that set up the PEPC, dismissed Mr Shaibu’s speculation.
Mr Bangari, whose account of the chain of events tallies with that of Mr Ogala, said, “When the CTCs of the judgement were ready, a copy was first issued to the PDP lawyers in the presence of their colleagues from the APC and the Labour Party. Thereafter, the APC lawyers got theirs on the same day (8 September).”
“So, the APC lawyers watermarked their own copy for the Tinubu Presidential Legal Team. That was an internal administrative thing of the party, but someone posted it on social media which has now gone viral,” the Chief Registrar said.
He added: “But you know, you may have heard insinuations that maybe they (APC lawyers) wrote the judgement (of the Presidential Election Petition Court). It doesn’t make sense!”
He urged Nigerians to ignore “the speculation because it’s outright falsehood.”
He wondered why the petitioners’ lawyers who were present while the CTC of the judgement was handed over to the APC legal team would not clear the air.
“…this document was given to the APC lawyers in the presence of the PDP and Labour Party lawyers. Why couldn’t they just say so, because they were witnesses of truth? You allowed this falsehood to go on, but you were there when the clean copy of the judgement was given.
“It doesn’t help us to raise the dust over nothing,” he said.
Checks by this newspaper on the Court of Appeal website showed that the copy of the judgement is not watermarked with the TPLT inscription.
Weighing in on the issue, a lawyer, Joseph Gbagyo, who is the Secretary of the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), Makurdi, cautioned against relying on social media for information on serious national issues.
“We are in a political era and some people are taking desperate measures. So, let’s stick to official documents from the court,” he said.
Toeing the same line, Liborous Oshoma, a Lagos-based lawyer, said counsel to parties were at liberty to watermark their personal court documents to give them individual identity.
“I think the lawyers to the petitioners should concentrate on debunking the court’s reasoning for dismissing the petitions instead of arguing over watermarked documents,” Mr Oshoma advised.
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