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Court Rulings Cast Shadow Over Crucial Vote in Nigeria


Vice President Atiku Abubakar is battling in the Nigerian courts to get his name on ballot slips for a crucial presidential poll on April 21. But after two courts this week issued divergent rulings, it looks increasingly unlikely that the matter will be resolved before voting day, casting a pall over the forthcoming ballot. Sarah Simpson has more from Nigeria's capital, Abuja.

Less than three weeks before election day, Vice President Atiku Abubakar is fighting in the courts to get his name back on the presidential ballot.

The April 21 polls are a crucial milestone for this unruly, oil-rich nation, marking the first time that power will pass from one elected civilian head of state to another. But Abubakar's series of unresolved court battles are throwing a shadow over the polls.

Abubakar, who was viewed as a leading contender for the presidency, was last month barred from running as a presidential candidate by the Independent National Electoral Commission - the body organizing the forthcoming polls. The commission said Abubakar could not stand because he is facing corruption charges.

This week, two Nigerian courts issued seemingly conflicting decisions regarding Abubakar's candidacy.

First, the Court of Appeal - Nigeria's second highest court - ruled Tuesday that the electoral commission has the power to remove candidates from the ballot for crimes, including corruption.

But later the same day, the lower Federal High Court ruled that Abubakar's name should be put back on the ballot as the panel that found the vice president guilty of corruption was not lawful.

Both decisions are to be appealed.

At a news conference in the capital, Abuja, Abubakar said that he would abide by the final decisions of the courts, even if their ruling is not in his favor.

"Of course, if that is the decision of the court, I will accept, why not," he said.

But it is uncertain whether the argument will be resolved before polling day, less than three weeks away.

The chairman of the electoral commission, Maurice Iwu, has repeatedly said that the polls will not be rescheduled or delayed.

A report by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch this week said that efforts to bar Abubakar have thrown doubt over how fair the polls will be.

Abubakar says that the electoral commission is partisan and is being used by his foe, President Olusegun Obasanjo, to destroy his presidential ambitions, threatening democracy.

"Our democracy is in serious trouble," he said. "Our democracy has been bastardized and turned into a government of one man by one man and for one man."

The president and vice president had a very public falling-out after Abubakar openly condemned a bid to change the constitution, which could have enabled President Obasanjo to run for a third term in office.

Obasanjo is backing a little-known northern governor, Umaru Yar'Adua, as ruling party candidate and his favored successor.

At a prior news conference, Yar'Adua told reporters that he is confident that the Nigerian courts could resolve the matter, and would do so in accordance with Nigerian law.

"What is really important is that we get the rule of law to be established and be respected and the personalities involved should take second place," he said.

Elections for state governors are to take place April 14. Presidential polls will be held a week later.

There are about 61 million registered voters in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. There are only 15 days left to produce and distribute ballot sheets, with or without Abubakar's name on them.