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Nigeria's Electoral Court Puts Presidential Victory on Trial


A special electoral court in Nigeria is investigating charges of cheating in April elections and could overturn the results in key votes. They have already overturned the results in several gubernatorial elections, and even the president's job is on the line. Analysts say the process is creating uncertainty in Nigeria and pulling attention away from other development issues, but that it is crucial to restore confidence in the country's young democracy. Naomi Schwarz has more from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Official Nigerian election results handed ruling party candidate, current President Umaru Yar'Adua, a landslide victory in the April vote. But observers condemned the polls, which also included state and legislative races, as marred by widespread rigging and voter intimidation. Even Mr. Yar'Adua has acknowledged there were irregularities.

A special court has been convened to hear complaints by Mr. Yar'Adua's opposition in the election. And if the court overturns the results, the country could have to re-do the election entirely.

The courts have already unseated a handful of governors who had been sworn in to the powerful positions. Chidi Odinkalu of Nigeria's Open Society Initiative says this is a sign of things to come.

"The popular perception is that many more governors are going to be judicially removed," he said.

Odinkalu says it is the first time the court has acted on such a big scale, and he hopes future elections will be fairer as a result.

"I think people are increasingly more confident that the result of this is that politicians are going to think many more times before going down the route of rigging," he added.

Elizabeth Donnelly, an analyst at British-based Chatham House, says it is good news for Nigeria to see the courts acting independently in this way.

But she says overturning Mr. Yar'Adua's election would create problems.

"I think it will be very problematic if the election is nullified, because you have to ask what will happen then," said Donnelly. "Will there be another election, and if that happens, well, why should it be any different from the elections that happened in April?"

She says although Mr. Yar'Adua's party participated in cheating, the opposition parties are guilty as well. Since Nigeria turned to democracy and ended three decades of military dictatorship in 1999, fraud and rigging have been reported in every election.

Donnelly says the cost in time and resources required to have a new election would be a drain on Nigeria's economy. And she says if Mr. Yar'Adua is removed, far worse outcomes are possible.

"Worst case scenario, it would be nullified and the country would be thrown in to chaos," she said.

Donnelly says she thinks the worst outcome is unlikely because the country remained mostly peaceful when the rigged results were announced.

Otive Igbuzor, from Action Aid Nigeria, says the fraudulent elections created their own problems, because elected officials must now defend their positions in court instead of governing.

"So the country is already suffering," he said. And if many are overturned and they go back to elections, Nigeria will suffer in many ways."

But Igbuzor says forcing politicians to be accountable for cheating will have important long-term benefits.

"The positive aspects of it in terms of strengthening democracy and ensuring that we are fair outweighs whatever negative impact that might likely occur from any overturn," he said.

President Yar'Adua has said he will respect whatever the court decides. Many analysts say he would win again in a new election, and could benefit from a stronger mandate if the new election was conducted more fairly. The president has also promised electoral reform.

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