Nigeria wonders if leader will keep his job

Umaru Yar’Adua looks serene in the official portrait hanging in a courtroom where lawyers in black robes are trying to unseat him as president of Nigeria.

But his position may be less secure than the photograph, nailed to the wall next to the national coat of arms.

The presidential tribunal is a special electoral court empowered to hear petitions against Yar’Adua’s victory in April by losing candidates. He has said he will respect its decision.

Over the past six weeks, state election tribunals have dislodged four governors, all from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), over irregularities in the elections that gave them and Yar’Adua their mandates.

This has triggered rumours the presidential tribunal could do the same. Political columnists are speculating about what would happen and investors are worried.

”The spectre of a court-ordered presidential poll re-run hangs over Nigeria,” wrote Sebastian Spio-Garbrah, an analyst at Eurasia Group.

Should the presidential tribunal overturn the result, the best scenario would be a peaceful re-run, analysts say. Yar’Adua would probably win again and, if the election were cleaner, he would have a stronger mandate to carry out reforms.

But Nigeria, a chaotic country of 140-million people with a history of botched elections and military coups, could also fall into prolonged limbo with legal battles over how the re-run should be conducted and by whom.

”This adds political risk to the Nigeria picture and investors are factoring that in,” said Bismarck Rewane, head of Financial Derivatives company in Lagos.

The results of the April elections for president, governors and legislators were contested from the minute they were announced. Opponents and neutral observers reported vote-rigging and intimidation on a huge scale.

Yar’Adua acknowledged there were flaws, promised to reform the electoral system and, crucially, declared that any complaints should be properly addressed by free and fair election tribunals.

Upsets

Perhaps emboldened by these assurances, the tribunals set to work on hundreds of petitions by losing candidates, from the state House of Assembly level to the Presidency.

After months of technical arguments, preliminary objections and formalities, rulings started trickling in from the states. Some legislative results have been overturned but the real headline-grabbers have been the gubernatorial upsets.

Five PDP governors have now lost their seats — one because of a Supreme Court ruling in June and four others in election tribunal rulings delivered since October 10 — and several more look likely to suffer the same fate.

In the federal capital Abuja, everyone is talking about what would happen if Yar’Adua’s victory were overturned. Would he appeal? Would he run again or step down? Who would run on the PDP ticket if not him?

However, the tribunal has been progressing at a snail’s pace. It has decided that hearing witnesses would take too long so lawyers have been submitting written documents instead.

This has been going on for weeks and is not over yet.

The petitioners are Yar’Adua’s two main rivals, former army dictator Muhammadu Buhari, who was credited with 6,6-million votes compared with Yar’Adua’s 24,6-million, and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, who was credited with 2,6-million.

Some lawyers say the case could conclude by the end of the year although others say it is more likely to stretch into 2008.

Buhari, who also ran for president in 2003 and lost to Olusegun Obasanjo, spent more than two years in court contesting that result. — Reuters

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