Monday, 11 February 2008

Nigeria: Courtroom ballots

Nigeria's post-election crisis has taken a very different turn from Kenya's. Unlike Kenya's thwarted politicians, Nigeria's opposition leaders are contesting the election results through the courts and this time seem to be confident of success – even if they have to take their claims to the Supreme Court.

Along with many observers, I would say that Nigeria's vote counting in April 2007 looked even more inventive than Kenya's last December. Indeed, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua has acknowledged that the widespread criticisms of the performance of the country's Independent National Electoral Commission need to be addressed.

Yet in Nigeria, there are no visiting UN Secretaries General, no high-level mediation and no talk of power-sharing. There's just a simple demand from the opposition politicians – Abubakar Atiku and General Muhammadu Buhari – that the election should be rerun under a independent electoral commission.

I went down to the Niger Delta to report on the election last April where there had been several violent clashes before the elections. On the day before the Presidential elections in Bayelsa, a group of militants stormed into the state capital Yenagoa, released some of their comrades held in a police cell and blew a hole in a local hotel.

Across the country there was plenty of election day violence. But after the result was announced, there was an almost eerie calm – even the Delta militants announced a truce of sorts. Neither of the opposition contenders seemed ready to take their battle to streets.
General Buhari told me that he expected the 'cause of free elections' to be taken up by civil society groups and he wasn't the sort of politician who would lead protest marches through the capital.

So against expectations, Nigeria is facing the prospect of a quiet revolution as the courts overturn the ruling People's Democratic Party's election victories. So far the courts have overturned the governorship election results in six states, as well as ruling against the election of several senators and representatives in the National Assembly. Now Nigeria is to enter unknown territory. Later this month, the Presidential Election tribunal is to announce its verdict on the mass of evidence and petitions presented to it by Abubakar's and Buhari's lawyers. That judgement is unlikely to be definitive: whichever side loses is likely to appeal. So there is the prospect of a lengthy legal battle ahead.

Should, the tribunal rule against President Yar'Adua and the PDP, all sorts of imponderables come into play: firstly, who will run the country? In the event of the elected President and Vice-President having to stand down, the President of the Senate has to take over and organise fresh elections within 60 days. However, the current President of the Senate, Colonel David Mark, faces his own election petition. If he loses, who then takes over?

Nigerian civic activists point out that a rerun of last year's elections without fundamental reform of the electoral commission is unlikely to be much of an improvement. Yet the prospect of another vote has sent the political class into paroxysms of plotting, the ruling PDP is to hold a national conference early next month at which some of its more ambitious members will scheme to replace Yar'Adua's name of the ballot with their own, if there is a rerun.

And the old military politicians in the party – Generals Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida – are still mentioned as kingmakers, if not kings trying to get back on the throne. The opposition candidates have their own problems: General Buhari has fallen out with some of the leading members of his own party who joined the Yar'Adua government and doubts persist about Abubakar's seriousness as a presidential contender.

So much is hanging on the court's decision that Nigeria's literati have taken to rewriting those lines in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 2: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a judge's wig …"