Democracy by court order
Jan 24th 2008 | ABUJA
From The Economist
President Umaru Yar'Adua faces a serious challenge to his legitimacy
FOR most of Nigeria's post-independence history, its politicians were more wary of losing office by a coup or assassination than by an adverse vote in a free election. These days, it is the courts they are worried about. Election tribunals that were set up to investigate last April's flawed elections have so far ordered six governors, over a dozen senators and scores of local-government officials to leave office for various electoral shenanigans. On January 28th, President Umaru Yar'Adua is due to appear before his own tribunal—and even his ruling party cannot be certain of the outcome.
Since the election, denounced by some outside observers as the most fraudulent they had ever witnessed, over 1,200 petitions have been filed by the losing candidates in protest against the results. Almost all the successful petitions so far have alleged individual breaches of the electoral law, such as ballot papers with missing names. But more systematic crimes may have occurred, and indeed the first petitioner to prove wholesale malpractice on election day—many voters never even saw ballot papers—won his case last week against the governor of Enugu state. Those bringing the case against the president hope to do the same.
The former military president, Muhammadu Buhari, and the former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, are leading the charge against Mr Yar'Adua—both lost to him in the presidential poll. They allege that the elections were a sham, that the country failed to produce a complete voters' register and that ballots lacked serial numbers (and were therefore impossible to track). Furthermore, Mr Abubakar says he was illegally excluded from the poll until the very last minute, preventing him from campaigning.
Mr Yar'Adua's team dismiss the allegations, and anyway, they say, any irregularities would not have changed the outcome of the election—Messrs Buhari and Abubakar were well beaten by Mr Yar'Adua. And proving that the election was rigged will be no small task. There have been many complaints that obtaining election documents from the government is a bureaucratic nightmare. And the legal requirements to prove rigging have been set high. One senatorial candidate in Taraba state, Rima Shawulu, was advised that he would need 50,000 sworn affidavits to prove that his constituency did not vote for the candidate who was declared the winner.
But the courts still offer hope to those candidates who feel they were cheated. The judiciary is stronger and more independent now than in the past. And even with the blitz of case files, this year's tribunals are moving much faster than those from the disputed election of 2003, some of which dragged on for years. This time the president of the Court of Appeal, Umaru Abdullahi, asked petitioners to “frontload” their cases, revealing their witnesses and evidence before the hearings start. Mr Abdullahi says the courts have also rooted out the corruption that plagued past tribunals. He says he knows the judges are staying clean because he is receiving more official requests for their removal—something past defendants would consider only after bribery had failed.
The good news is that the tribunals show that the rule of law is being taken seriously by Nigeria's institutions.
But it is still a very roundabout way to democracy. The tribunal process has been expensive, for candidates and for the country. The National Assembly, where many of the members are preoccupied with fending off tribunal cases, has not passed a single law since it first met last June. And the various annulments so far have had little deterrent effect; local elections across Nigeria's states in the past several months have been violent and of dubious credibility.
Regardless of the first verdict in Mr Yar'Adua's case, it will no doubt be referred up to the Supreme Court. Many wonder if the judges will want to go down in history as affirming an election that almost everyone considers a sham. As one Court of Appeal judge, Helen Moronkeji, put it in a recent election case, “Democracy is not an esoteric or fanciful concept too difficult to grasp.
” In Nigeria, it is the judiciary, rather than the politicians, who seem to understand this.