Nigeria’s national elections in 2007 were considered deeply flawed by most international observers. The contest was not an election, former US Ambassador John Campbell said afterward, but an “election-like event.” Observers alleged fraud not only in the presidential results, but also in the results of state elections around the country. The shadow of 2007 looms over next year’s elections, which President Goodluck Jonathan has promised will be free and fair.
Cases attempting to resolve allegations from 2007 have worked their way through Nigerian courts for the last three years. Two concluded in the last month, and in both instances courts overturned the elections of sitting governors from the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in favor of opposition challengers. These outcomes, the latest in a string of approximately a dozen overturned PDP victories, testify both to the problems Nigerian democracy has (how did the system deny seats to rightful winners for three years?) and to a potential for accountability in Nigeria that is rare in today’s world.
The first of the two cases occurred in Ekiti State in Nigeria’s south west. On October 15th, a court installed Kayode Fayemi of the Action Congress of Nigeria as governor, annulling the election of his rival Segun Oni of the PDP. As I said above, this is not the first time a court has overturned a gubernatorial election since 2007, but it is one of the most significant legal defeats for the PDP since President Jonathan took over earlier this year. For this reason, and because it comes so close to next year’s presidential election, Fayemi’s victory has special significance. Professor Richard Joseph explains:
[One] important sign that Jonathan’s promise of electoral fairness is being heeded was the October 15 decision of a panel of Appeals Court judges that Dr. Kayode Fayemi was the duly elected governor of Ekiti State in southwest Nigeria. Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party had been responsible for invidious acts perpetrated to block Fayemi at every turn. Fayemi was promptly inaugurated as governor on October 16 to begin a four-year term, thereby joining “progressive” governors in two neighboring states, Ondo and Edo, who also “retrieved” their mandate thanks to judicial action. Some of the tendrils of developmental governance in Nigeria are acquiring sturdy roots and stalks.
The second of the two cases I am discussing here concluded just yesterday in Delta State, where a court “nullified the election of Delta state governor Emmanuel Uduaghan, a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) whose term had been due to end next May, and ordered a fresh vote within 90 days.” Uduaghan may win the re-run, as other ousted PDP governors have, but the nullification reinforces the message courts are sending: the law applies to all parties equally.
Many observers of these decisions have mixed, or even negative, feelings about them. Reuters in its articles on Ekiti and Delta emphasizes the doubts these rulings cast on the integrity of the 2007 elections and the potential credibility of the vote in 2011. An editorial in the Nigerian newspaper 234 Next argues that the election re-run in Delta could decrease, rather than increase, accountability:
By only now getting around to pronouncing on the legality of that election, after Mr. Uduaghan had occupied the post nearly all of the four years allowed by the constitution, proves the adage that justice delayed is most certainly justice denied.
Unlike in other states, such as Edo and, most recently, Ekiti, where other candidates were declared the rightful winners, Mr. Uduaghan is free to run for governor all over again, as if his three and a half years never happened. In effect, Mr. Uduaghan could quite possible preside over the affairs of that benighted state for three terms, for a total of 11 years and 6 months. Where is the justice?
These points are valid. But the nullifications still represent a remarkable and rare legal decision. Many electoral outcomes around the world are disputed every year; few are overturned by courts. In the United States, for example, when courts intervene in elections it is usually to settle them – typically in favor of the projected or announced winner – and not to overturn them. Rarer still is the idea that an election could be overturned long after it occurred. Tragic it may be that a rightful winner waits a long time to take his or her seat, but is it a bad thing that the door to a legal challenge can remain open for years?
The decisions in Ekiti and Delta States highlight the ongoing problems resulting from the 2007 elections in Nigeria. But they also suggest that an independent judiciary is attempting to hold politicians accountable, however long it may take.