Just as Kenya’s electoral crisis eases, a battle is brewing over a deeply flawed and highly contested election in another fractious, ethnically and religiously divided African nation, Nigeria.
But this time the fight is taking place not between ethnic militants brandishing clubs and machetes in muddy alleyways of slums and villages. The fight over Nigeria’s tattered democracy is being carried out in the hushed hallways of courtrooms, by men and women in black robes and powdered wigs, armed with stacks of legal briefs and forensic evidence of stuffed ballots and doctored tally sheets.
On Tuesday, an election tribunal is set to rule on whether Nigeria’s presidential election last April should stand, with its violence, intimidation, ballot stuffing and fraud so severe that international observers said it was not credible.
“It is our own Super Tuesday,” said Lai Mohammed, spokesman for the Action Congress, the party of one of the candidates contesting the victory of Umaru Yar’Adua, the hand-picked successor to Olusegun Obasanjo, whose party has ruled Nigeria since it returned to democracy in 1999. “We expect the results to show that what happened last April was nothing less than daylight robbery.”
The governing party has suffered a cascade of courtroom reversals at the state level since the election that was supposed to mark the first peaceful transfer from one elected government to another in Nigeria after decades of coups, dictatorship and strife.
Election tribunals have removed 6 of 36 state governors so far, along with dozens of lawmakers. Dozens more disputed races are still working their way through the courts. These decisions have chipped away at the legitimacy of the election as a whole, and analysts say that what months ago seemed unthinkable — a reversal in the presidential race — seems increasingly possible.
Such a move would surely cheer advocates of democracy in Nigeria, which has seesawed between military and civilian rule since it won its independence from Britain in 1960, but also raises the possibility of a power vacuum in Africa’s most populous nation and its biggest oil producer.