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Court begins hearing Atiku’s election case

By Eromo Egbejule, in Lagos
Posted on Wednesday, 27 March 2019 14:28

The courts could soon rule on presidential candidate Atiku Abubakar's case contesting the results of the February 2019 vote. REUTERS/Nyancho NwaNri

Nigeria's democracy seems to be following the pattern of a sinusoidal wave, keeping Africa's largest economy in a steady state of political topsy-turvy.

The 2019 elections, characterised by violence, voter suppression and other irregularities, erased some of the gains of those from four years ago which were widely seen as free and fair – although not entirely without a few chaotic situations. Former president Goodluck Jonathan, who was the first incumbent president in Nigeria’s history to lose to his opponent, conceded peacefully and without much fanfare.

The presidential elections tribunal will today begin the hearing of the case by Atiku Abubakar. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) presidential flag bearer is contesting the outcome of the 23 February polls based on claims of vast irregularities. The five-man tribunal is chaired by the president of the appellate court, justice Zainab Bulkachuwa.

The voice of the courts and the voice of the people

  • Atiku’s case, which follows in the footsteps of President Muhammadu Buhari’s legal battle in each of his three previously unsuccessful presidential runs (2003, 2007 and 2011), is seen as a furthering of democracy in Nigeria, which returned to civilian rule twenty year ago.
  • The PDP goes to court with a spring in its step, having won 12 of the 27 concluded governorship elections – Buhari’s All Progressives Congress (APC) won 15 – and is in the lead in two of the remaining elections. It is the lead opposition force in all but one of the seven where no governorship elections were held this year.
    Nigeria has a distorted electoral calendar due to the judiciary having reversed the outcome of elections in seven of 36 states; this trend began after Peter Obi, Atiku’s running mate, had his mandate reinstated in 2006 after three years of litigation, to become governor of Anambra State in south-eastern Nigeria.
  • Last week, the Osun State election tribunal made a majority judgement, awarding the state gubernatorial elections held in September 2018, to the PDP. The electoral commission had announced the APC as winners. As expected, the incumbent has launched an appeal against the tribunal’s ruling.
  • An appellate court also upturned the victories of the APC’s candidates in Zamfara, upholding the decision of a lower court to support the Independent National Electoral Commission’s (INEC) decision to bar them from contesting. The restriction came as a result of internal APC conflicts. It is not clear if fresh elections will be ordered or if the runners-up will be declared winners.

Above the law

All of these judicial gains have happened just as successive presidents have contravened the rule of law. The Buhari administration has flouted a number of court orders.

  • Some of the most notable examples include the continued detention of former national security adviser Sambo Dasuki and Ibraheem El-Zakzaky, the head of a Shia Muslim movement.
  • In January, Buhari bypassed constitutional processes and suspended Walter Onnoghen, the chief justice, without due recourse to the National Judicial Council, for violating Code of Conduct for Public Officers provisions about undeclared assets.

One step forward or one step backward?

In the post-electoral period, observers, researchers and analysts have been comparing the elections of 2015 and 2019.

  • “There is no denying it”, Matthew Page of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said categorically. “Overall, 2019 has been a step backward in Nigeria’s democratic development. Both parties and INEC share responsibility.”
  • According to the Abuja-based Centre for Democracy & Development, there was widespread violence and disruption of polling in the Kano supplementary governorship election. “Initial evidence suggests there was a deliberate deployment of political thugs in the supplementary elections, to suppress voters, intimidate officials and skew the polls in favour of some political actors”.
  • Elsewhere, the Eurasia Group was one of very few contrary voices. Amaka Anku, head of its Africa coverage agreed that 2015 was a watershed moment but says it is “inaccurate” that violence and voter fraud were objectively worse than in 2015. “[Goodluck Jonathan/PDP presided over months of brutal violence against APC members in Rivers in 2015. […] It is easy to allow the huge positive fact of an incumbent’s loss in 2015 to overshadow the very serious violence and other challenges witnessed in that electoral cycle.”
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