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When shall we stop going to court after elections? – By Hassan Gimba

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Is there something with the presidential system of democracy we have twice adopted for ourselves that necessitates involving the courts where judges are made to be the ultimate arbiter between contestants?

In 1979, it was the judges who decided who emerged as the president between Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Chief Obafemi Awolowo when they told the nation what two-thirds of nineteen should be in a judgment that is more of a compromise between the spirit of the law and political practicality.

The requirement to be the president was a majority of votes and national spread, determined by the ability of a presidential candidate to score 25 per cent in at least two-thirds of the states of the federation. Nigeria then had nineteen states with Lagos as a state and federal capital, therefore avoiding the controversy associated with Abuja now.

In the presidential election held on the 11th of August, 1979, Alhaji Shehu Usman Aliyu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria (NPN) got 5,688,857, defeating his closest rival, Chief Obafemi Jeremiah Awolowo of the Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN), who garnered 4,916,551 in an election where the total registered voters were 48,633,782 with 16,846,533 voting. That represented 33.77% for Shagari who won in nine states, and 29.18% for Awolowo. The Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) headed by Michael Ani thus declared Shehu Shagari the winner of the 1979 presidential election.

By the declared results, Shehu Shagari got 25% of the votes cast in twelve states, namely: Bauchi, Bendel, Borno, Cross River, Gongola, Kaduna, Kwara, Niger, Plateau, Rivers and Sokoto. The 13th state was the issue. It was Kano State – where he scored 243,423 votes, equivalent to 19.4% of the 1,220,763 votes cast in total.

A dispute thus ensued over whether Shehu Shagari had met the required threshold, with arguments centred on his 25% win in twelve states and 19.4% in Kano State. But Shagari argued that his 19.9% in Kano represented two-thirds of the 12 2/3 that was two-thirds of 19 states.

And so Chief Obafemi Awolowo went to the Special Election Petition Tribunal at Lagos, which started on the 4th of September, 1979. In just six days, the Election Tribunal dismissed the appellant’s claims, affirming Shehu Shagari’s victory.

Not satisfied, he went to the Supreme Court. The justices that heard his appeal were Atanda Fatai Williams, Mohammed Bello, Mohammed Uwais, Andrews Otutu Obaseki, Kayode Eso, Ayo Gabriel Irikefe and Chike Idigbe.

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On 26th September 1979, Williams, who was the presiding judge, and others decided the case in favour of Shagari, with only Eso dissenting.

The Fourth Republic came in after the presidential elections held on 27th February 1999. The result was a victory for Olusegun Obasanjo of the People’s Democratic Party, who defeated Olu Falae on a joint Alliance for Democracy/All People’s Party ticket. Out of the total registered voters of 57,938,945, 30,280,052 voted with Obasanjo getting 18,738,154 (or 62.8%) and Falae got 11,110,287 (or 37.2%) of the votes.

Olu Falae contested the election at the tribunal where he, among other allegations, said Obasanjo was an ex-convict and a member of a secret cult, the Ogboni fraternity.

Falae went to the Court of Appeal on March 15 and on Friday, April 16, 1999, Justice Dahiru Musdapher entered judgment in favour of Obasanjo.

It is worth noting that the first election in 1979 was conducted with the presidential election coming first; however, the beneficiary reversed the order in 1983 and the NPN won with 48%. Chief Obafemi Awolowo this time did not go to the Supreme Court after losing at the tribunal, claiming that it would amount to a waste of time. He also hinted that it may take one year to gather evidence of the rigging by Shagari’s party.

We have also seen that an election was held in August and the petition hearing started in the first week of September at a special tribunal that gave judgement within a week. An appeal went to the Supreme Court which decided on it by the 26 of that month and the swearing-in of the president took place on October 1.

Again, the presidential election came first in 1999, but by the next round of elections in 2023, the sequence was reversed with that of the president first.

Judgement in the petition by Falae against the election was also delivered within a month.

From the elections of 1979 and 1999, we can deduce a reasonable, fairly tolerable process. But in each case, four years later, beneficiaries invariably put their interests first before that of the nation. And in this, there is always collaboration with the electoral body that is anything but independent, from the way its managers are appointed and how the body is funded.

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You ask why the electoral timetable is always reversed after the first election. In 1983, sensing dissatisfaction among the people with the way the country was being governed, the ruling NPN, afraid of defeat, capitalised on Shehu Shagari’s perceived likeability and reversed the timetable.

Afraid that the party would lose states and legislators, which could affect the electoral fortunes of the sitting president, the executive decided to start from the top. They relied on what they christened the “bandwagon effect” to commit electoral heists, calling it a “landslide” victory. Opponents and critics derisively called it a “moonslide”.

In 2003, the same fear of losing, threat from General Muhammadu Buhari’s foray into the presidential race, altercation with his deputy, Atiku Abubakar, and knowing how wary his party and governors were of his dictatorial tendencies, made Obasanjo, in cahoots with the electoral umpire, reverse the election timetable to start with his and that of the National Assembly. Filled with paranoia, he assumed that he would be sacrificed once others won their elections, and so he engineered the reversal of the order of the elections.

The calculation was that the governors and the party structure would of necessity fight for him to win because his defeat would also signpost theirs. And they know him: if he lost the election, Obasanjo would make sure every one of them lost theirs. The National Assembly easily became accomplices because the arrangement also favoured their political survival. Plus, he introduced the politics of “Ghana-Must-Go.”

We will consequently look to see if at any point there is always a convergence by the executive, legislature and judiciary against the ordinary voter for their interests other than that of the nation.

Afterwards, we will look at electoral litigations and why the political class deliberately jettisoned the process where election petitions were concluded before the inauguration, as we saw in 1979, 1983 and 1999.


Hassan Gimba is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Neptune Prime.

 

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