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Joyful Nigerians Celebrate Opposition Governor's Inauguration in Edo State

Citizens of Nigeria’s Edo State are rejoicing over an appeals court decision effectively overturning the April, 2007 election of Edo State Governor Oserheiman Osunbor of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) on voting irregularities. Elated residents poured out onto the streets of the Edo capital, Benin City, yesterday to witness the swearing-in ceremony for former labor leader and Action Congress party (AC) candidate Adams Oshiomhole, whose petition before an electoral tribunal to unseat Osunbor last March was upheld on Tuesday by a Nigerian court of appeals. Nigerian-born attorney and legal consultant on human rights Emmanuel Ogebe says Oshiomhole’s popularity and the gracious way in which Osunbor accepted his defeat are reminiscent of the way Americans of all political stripes celebrated last week’s election victory by President-Elect Barack Obama.

“In Nigeria, this is really a mini-Obama event for many, many Nigerians. Even across both party lines, (it was) one of those events where people were honking the horns of their cars and dancing on the roofs because it’s historic,” he noted.

Unprecedented television coverage of the appeal was allowed from the courtroom by court officials, as Nigerians across the nation watched proceedings intently. Attorney Ogebe says he believes the popular verdict, which generated an outpouring of goodwill, took its cue in good part from Nigerians’ active interest in the American election race and the non-contentious way in which Mr. Obama’s victory was acknowledged by his Republican party opponent, Senator John McCain.

“For the first time, the ruling party borrowed a leaf from the recent US election because the former governor, Osunbor, was very gracious in conceding, even though he didn’t have much of a choice. And I think it’s because of the tone that was set when McCain conceded the elections to Obama within hours of the results emerging. Nigerians have been following the US elections closely, and I think that they feel that there needs to be a change of tone in the politics,” he said.

Emmanuel Ogebe says this is the first successful opposition party challenge of Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its hold on a high governmental post.

“This is definitely the first case where an opposition party successfully unseated the incumbent ruling party candidate and replaced them. Now, this is different from the other situations we’ve had in Nigeria where they’ve had reruns and the ruling party won the reruns. This is a case where the court decided that the party that actually won was the opposition, kicked out the ruling party, and installed the opposition,” he noted.

Attempts by national opposition Nigerian candidates Muhammadu Buhari (ANPP) and Atiku Abubakar (AC) to unseat or challenge current President Umaru Yar’Adua’s 2007 election for alleged fraud have been rejected by the courts, but PDP rivals are vowing to pursue the case as far as the Supreme Court. Ogebe says that although Nigeria’s judiciary has not fulfilled the role of an instrument of last resort for bringing about political change, this week’s ruling for Adams Oshiomhole holds out hope to ordinary citizens, who believe in the democratic process.

“The judiciary clearly is a very unique institution. It’s not as political as the executive and the legislative, and this verdict clearly gives hope to the masses that they can win justice, even if they don’t win it at the polls, they can get it at the courts,” he said.

Several other contested gubernatorial election races are still pending in government courts, including appeals court cases for Oyo, Kwara, and Imo states. Attorney Ogebe says that the challenge in Nigeria’s Ondo State is particularly notable.

“That is a very well documented case, and it’s very likely that it may have a similar verdict to the one we just saw in Edo State. But just to show you the importance of Edo going to the opposition, this is the state where the former first lady of Nigeria came from. Obasanjo’s wife was from Edo State, so it’s significant that it’s going to the opposition at this time,” he noted.