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Financial Times: Nigerian court rejects poll challenge

By Matthew Green
Published: February 26 2008 12:18 | Last updated: February 26 2008 18:20

Nigerian judges ended months of uncertainty over the fate of President Umaru Yar’Adua on Tuesday by dismissing a case calling for a rerun of last year’s presidential elections on the grounds of mass fraud.

The threat of being removed by the courts has weighed heavily on Mr Yar’Adua’s government since the April polls, which were branded “not credible” by European Union observers because of the level of cheating and violence.

While the verdict will do little to convince Nigerians that the elections were free or fair, Mr Yar’Adua may now have more leverage over vested interests resisting his plans to tackle ­corruption and reform the economy.

Two rival candidates, former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar, vowed to appeal after a five-judge panel ruled they had seen insufficient grounds to annul Mr Yar’Adua’s win.

“If this election is sustained, it will be the end of democracy in Nigeria,” said Emeka Ngige, one of the lawyers seeking to annul the polls. “People will not waste their time going to court any more to challenge elections, they will take the law into their own hands,” he told the Financial Times.

While the appeals will trigger several more months of legal wrangling, the fact that the judges rejected all the petitioners’ arguments suggests they may struggle to persuade the Supreme Court to take a different view.

The prospect of a rerun had raised concerns about stability at a time when Nigeria is seeking to attract greater foreign investor interest in its capital markets, infrastructure and banking.

But the ruling appears to have endorsed Mr Yar’Adua’s strategy of seeking to build legitimacy by emphasising his respect for the rule of law.

Investors will be hoping that the judgment will allow Mr Yar’Adua to speed up reform, particularly in the oil and gas sector in Africa’s biggest crude exporter.

Mr Yar’Adua has pledged to raise oil production from its current level of about 2.1m b/d by tackling violence in the Niger Delta, restructuring the state energy company and seeking sour­ces of finance for joint ventures with western companies such as Royal Dutch Shell.

Nigeria’s 140m people will now be looking for signs that Mr Yar’Adua will deliver faster progress on his promise to spread the benefits of oil wealth beyond a tiny elite.

Campaigners for greater democracy said the judges should have issued stronger condemnation of the abuses that took place during the polls, widely regarded as the worst since military rule ended in 1999.

Some Nigerians have hailed the courts as the country’s greatest defenders of democracy in recent months after they showed a degree of independence unthinkable under the eight-year rule of Olusegun Obasanjo, the previous president who picked Mr Yar’Adua as his successor.

Judges have overturned the election of seven governors from Nigeria’s 36 states since April, fuelling speculation that they might have dared to challenge the ­president.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

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