Chief Wole Olanipekun, SAN needs no introduction. He’s amongst the very best of Nigeria’s election petition lawyers.
And make no mistake about it – he knows his job. His tactics might appear very aggressive, particularly his cross-examination, which is nothing short of pure intimidation of the witness but most often than not, he gets what he’s after.
Hence, no one would blame President Muhammadu Buhari for picking him as his lead counsel nor for assembling a strong team of over 20 Senior Advocates of Nigeria to work with the veteran.
But when INEC dodged defense of their case, a legal guru like Olanipekun was put on a spot. He dared not toe the Electoral body’s line. His client must bring witnesses to defend himself, particularly his certificate mess, which is the worst embarrassment any public officer in the country has faced in recent history. Even within Nigeria’s standards, a president facing perjury is as serious as they come.
However, Olanipekun was very cautious. The day INEC announced to a bewildered court that they weren’t bringing any witness or tendering any material evidence, the buck passed to the second Respondents. And instead of starting his defense by the normal time(9.30 am) the following day, the Buhari lead counsel chose 2.00 pm.
Keen followers decoded that the reason the Buhari lead counsel did so was because he wanted to test the waters of the Petitioners’ cross-examination first. Starting in the morning would have made it difficult to back out half-way if the heat got too hot. Starting late presented just few witnesses, then the day would be gone and restrategisation employed, if necessary. As it turned out it was more than necessary.
Even though Olanipekun and his team walked very calmly, the well-cordoned terrace caved in. All Buhari’s seven witnesses evidently buried instead of saved his cause.
The very first witness, Major General Paul Tarfa evidently drove a long nail into Buhari’s self-made coffin from his response to Yunus Usman, the INEC lead counsel’s question. Obviously, this witness was called to identify a photograph where him and Buhari, amongst others, took in 1961 of graduating students of Katsina Provincial School as well as affirm that he joined the Nigerian Army same day with Mr. President. The witness was performung to perfection as propped by the Respondents’ lead counsels.
But without even Dr. Livy Uzoukwu taking over cross-examination, disaster struck for Buhari with General Tarfa delivering a death knell, albeit unwittingly.
It was supposed to be a routine question from Usman of confirmation that the Nigerian Army took his certificate alongside Buhari’s on admission. The witness responded that nothing like that ever happened.
It is ever difficult to prove allegations of perjury in such cases of elite stakes but when a defending witness provided the hammer, there couldn’t have been any better day in court for the Petitioners.
One after the other, Dr. Ojukwu dissected every of the witnesses.
Still trying to manage his dwindling defense, Olanipekun called his third witness. It was suspected that this witness was fast-tracked for the defense team to gain a foothold. A very familiar face walked into the court. Some that were guessing the identity quit the mental exercise when President Buhari’s chief of staff mentioned his name while being affirmed.
For those who know, Abba Kyari entering the witness box is almost like Buhari himself appearing. So, then was the moment. It was win or burst for either parties. Olanipekun was to use the man who has been with Buhari for donkey years to prove his client had certificates while Uzoukwu knew he had to burst this particular witness or Buhari may get away with all the mess surrounding his certificate claims.
The CoS did quite well while all Respondents lead counsels propped him.
Then he faced Dr. Uzoukwu with an intimidating mien. But when the Petitioners’ lead counsel was done, the President’s CoS had obviously tucked his tail, which was hitherto wagging wildly, between his legs. And all for good measure because the man was made to realise he wasn’t only lying under oath for a master being tried for perjury but he also has committed same offence by going to Cambridge to collect Buhari’s purported attestation on July 18, 2019…just 12 days prior to his appearance in the box while the deposition he made under oath that Buhari had same certificate was done far back in April, 2019.
“Are you aware that you made your depositions before collecting this attestation?” Dr. Uzoukwu drove home.
And the CoS went dumb for some moments. By the time he eventually got saved from Dr. Uzoukwu’s torture, Olanipekun stopped further calls for witnesses and hence forced the court to adjourn to next day. Debriefing was absolutely necessary.
And reporters went to town. By the time the Tribunal resumed the following day, bold posters of banning use of phones at the Tribunal were everywhere. Also announcement was made by the Tribunal secretary to that effect just before the judges walked in. The defense team was feeling the heat and instructions from the very top were becoming evident.
But with or without phones in court, the Buhari’s team defense never improved.
They called a deputy registrar of WAEC. From every indication, Buhari’s concentration was on his certificates saga. Otherwise, one suspected that the second Respondents would have toed the line of INEC by not presenting any witness. But that would have been suicidal regarding how incriminating the certificate issue is. Besides, Nigerians can forgive their president of not having a certificate, however poorly he performs in office but lying under oath that he had is a very tall misdemeanor to ever think of forgiving.
So Olanipekun and co continued to try. But the WAEC witness didn’t offer them the desired succour.
The Petitioners’ lead counsel was ruthless in cross-examination with the WAEC deputy registrar, who attested that Buhari sat for and got a grade 2 with aggregate 32 in six out of the eight subjects he entered for in 1961 Cambridge -assisted school certificate examination. In evidence, both the WAEC and Cambridge attestations were presented as exhibits. But under fire of cross examination, the WAEC executive officer was to admit that in one of the attestations, eight subjects were sat for while six were sat for by same person in the other. But that was not the real blunder.
When the witness was told to tell the court that what he presented was a WAEC certificate, he went dumb for a considerable moment and admitted on further pressing that it wasn’t a certificate. He also attested that the Cambridge version wasn’t a certificate either.
But the biggest of the blunders would still come – when told to spell the first names on both ‘certificates’ one after the other, the WAEC man spelt M-O-H-A-M-E-D. Everybody knows that the Buhari on firing line has a first name spelt, M-U-H-A-M-M-A-D-U.
Three further witnesses and Olanipekun threw in the towel. With a big bus full of witnesses from the second Respondents stationed within the court premises, the Buhari team closed their case at exactly 11.25 am, hours before the break.
Their witnesses had evidently done their defense enough damage. But no one blamed the poor witnesses. The general consensus was that lies are impossible to defend, especially if one has to go through the blades of Dr. Uzoukwu’s very hot knife in name of cross-examination.
Tried as he professionally could, Olanipekun must have truly understood how terrible a case he was hired to lead its defense was.
If he hadn’t lost a case ever before, he certainly would have gone home that day feeling a trend was about to be broken. For it will take close to eight wonder of the world for Buhari to walk out of that Tribunal clean of all his certificate mess.