SATURDAY THE FRONTLINES
By Joseph Ushigiale
In the last week or so since the declaration of President Muhammadu Buhari of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as the winner of the 2019 presidential elections by the Independent Electoral Commission (INEC) there has been uneasy calm in the polity.
From Abuja, Lagos, Kano and several other places, there were mixture of celebrations, protest and anger by a cross section of Nigerians over the electoral outcome. The highpoint of all this was the decision by former Vice President and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar to challenge the results which gave the prize to Buhari.
Ever since Abubakar took that decision, there has been a huge clamour from a broad section of well meaning Nigerians seeking to dissuade him from charting the legal course for the simple reason that it would come to nothing.
While some of these calls were sensible others were out rightly ridiculous. For instance, a group of women, under the aegis of Two Million Woman Rally for Democracy in Nigeria, Peace and Stability, convened by Mary Onuche kick-started its match at the Unity Fountain down to Hilton Area before proceeding to the Force headquarters, Eagle Square and back to Unity Fountain. They called on Atiku to emulate former President Goodluck Jonathan and congratulate Buhari on his victory to save Nigeria from anarchy and embrace his brother.
Chief Olisa Agbakoba in a paper titled ‘2019 Presidential Election: Ethnic Consideration vs Governance Consideration’ delivered recently noted that “I understand the PDP is aggrieved at the outcome of the election and alleged massive irregularities. I urge former Vice President Atiku Abubakar not to approach the Election Petition Tribunal.”
Minister for Transportation, Rotimi Amaechi had this to say: “We are celebrating but we are conscious of the fact that we want to repeat what Gowon said in 1970: ‘No victor, no vanquished’. We enjoin our colleagues in the PDP to join us in ensuring that Nigerians benefit from good governance. We believe they are our colleagues and friends, but if they don’t see reason, I think we also have lawyers.”
But Abubakar remained resolute and undeterred by insisting rather that “I hereby reject the result of the February 23, 2019 sham election and will be challenging it in court, because with regards to the presidential elections that took place on February 23, 2019, it is clear that there were manifest and premeditated malpractices in many states which negate the results announced.”
Is Abubakar on the wrong path? No, he is charting a road well travelled right from 1979 when the country returned to civil rule after several years of military rule. That year, two political gladiators, Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) and Chief Obafemi Awolowo among others contested for the presidency. Shagari was declared winner by the then federal electoral commission (FEDECO) headed by Michael Ani. Awolowo disputed the result and proceeded to the presidential election tribunal.
On September 6, 1979, the presidential election tribunal declared that Shagari of the NPN, had defeated Awolowo of the UPN. Not satisfied, Awolowo, himself a lawyer, headed for the Supreme Court to seek a determination of section 34 (A) (l) (c) (ii) of the Electoral Decree, 1977 as amended, whether two_ thirds of a state is synonymous with two _ thirds of the total votes cast in that state or the votes cast in two – thirds of votes cast in the territorial or physical areas of the state.
And on September 26, 1979, the Supreme Court, in the case, AWOLOWO v. SHAGARI (1979) NSCC 87, gave a landmark final verdict declaring that Shagari won 2/3 of the total votes cast in 19 states as propounded by Shagari’s lawyer, Chief Richard Akinjide, and which made him the rightful winner of that election. Awolowo secured 4.9 million out of the 16.8 million votes cast – Shagari, over five million.
Since 1979, there had been other elections with election petitions. In 1999 it was Olu Falae Vs Olusegun Obasanjo; and in 2003, Muhammadu Buhari Vs Obasanjo; then in 2007, Buhari Vs Umaru Musa Yar’Adua; again in 2011, Buhari Vs Goodluck Jonathan.
It is self evident that Buhari has patronized the courts more than any other presidential contestant in the political history of this country a record three times. This may only be because he believed he could get justice from it. Although now in power, Buhari has consistently passed a vote-of-no-confidence on the judiciary citing his serial failures as reason.
There are several reasons why Abubakar is on course with his legal struggle. Firstly, there are millions of Nigerians who believed in his ability to bring about the desire changes in the country. These people shut their ears to the orchestrated narratives of hate, corruption and outright bifurcation of the polity reducing the contest to a them versus us struggle. These people would be disappointed and could cost Abubakar his political career if he does not give them hope for the future regardless of whether he loses or wins.
Secondly, Abubakar would be following a precedent set by Buhari, who, right from 2003, had always headed to the courts to seek redress but never had a single reprieve. It is expected that, given his experiences, he is better placed to reform the judiciary to ensure that justice is truly served to a litigant. Therefore, all eyes are on the outcome this legal battle which is to test the present administrations claims to building a strong virile and independent judiciary as the last beacon of hope for the common man.
Thirdly, Abubakar’s legal struggle is particularly to test Buhari’s claim to being a man of integrity who has the gumption to call a spade a spade. The reason being that in 2007, the late Umaru Yar’Adua acknowledged that the election that brought him to power was massively rigged. Can Buhari make such acknowledgment? It remains to be seen.
Fourthly, from our history, no presidential challenger has ever won his case in court largely because of the hurdles they have to cross. Abubakar’s case is possibly not going to be different. But whether for academic purposes or to truly seek justice, it is important that both the electoral system and the judiciary are reformed to restore confidence and make votes counts.
Finally, if the court rules that Abubakar has failed to prove the Doctrine of Substantial Compliance and upholds Buhari’s election based on the Doctrine of Consequence, this would again be a sad reminder of a malignant sore called electoral malpractices.
It is a clarion call for the administration to urgently take genuine steps to build on former president Goodluck Jonathan’s foundation previously laid to deliver free and fair elections from which Buhari benefited. And the best way to go is to sign the Electoral Law as amended as well as building a structure that would make votes to count.