The president of Nigeria’s senate, David Mark, has been ruled the official winner of a contested senate seat in Benue State in a complex and bitter legal challenge. As third in the line of constitutional succession, behind Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, Senator Mark holds an important key to the political survival of President Umaru Yar’Adua’s government, which took power a little more than one year ago. Yesterday’s verdict in an appeals court in the city of Jos in Plateau State overturns a lower court ruling and several tribunal challenges by his opponent, Alhaji Usman Abubakar of the All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP).
Attorney and legal consultant Emmanuel Ogebe is a managing partner in the Washington office of the US – Nigeria law group. He says that yesterday’s decision favoring Mark, who is a member of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), would also appear to help President Yar’Adua, who faces an appeals ruling later this year from his two opponents in last year’s presidential vote, which was widely condemned as flawed.
“This is a huge sign that Nigeria is on the step towards stability. In March, we had a ‘super Tuesday,’ where the courts decided in the space of 48 hours on the validity of the elections of the president, the vice president, and then the third in line of succession, the senate president. So in essence, if the courts had kicked them all out, we would have had a power vacuum and a constitutional crisis. So the fate of the senate president is actually almost as decisive as the fate of the president and the vice president,” he said.
Compared to Nigeria’s president, who still faces legal challenges to his own April, 2007 election from rivals Mohammadu Buhari of the ANPP and from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress party (AC), Ogebe says that the crisis facing the senate leader loomed even greater as a danger to the stability of the nation.
“If we had gone to a situation where the senate president was not in place, it would be very difficult for the courts to remove the president and the vice president because it would be an open invitation to the military to come in and close a power vacuum. So in a sense, this has brought relief with regard to the succession,” he explained.
Legal counselor Ogebe points to a peculiar oversight in Nigeria’s constitutional process, which outlines a line of succession for replacing a president who departs office due to infirmity, but neglects to spell out the terms surrounding a departure due to election irregularities.
“The way the constitution works is with the president and the vice president coming on the same ticket. So if the election of the president is invalidated, it would automatically pull the rug from under the feet of the vice president as well. Now the constitution does not foresee a situation where both the president and the vice president are ruled out of office because of bad elections. So you see we actually have a problem on our hands,” he notes.
While Tuesday’s court ruling averted an impending constitutional crisis, Emmanuel Ogebe says it also restores an orderly functioning to the senate, which is currently enjoying a two month summer recess.
“The senate would have been thrown into a frenzy, with people trying to replace him. There are people in the senate who want to be senate president because they believe that they will be president-in-waiting if anything happens at the supreme court. And this is why Senator Mark’s battle was a very tough one. It was a local senatorial seat, but it was nationalized,” he said.
Although police officials in Benue State went on alert to restrain any trouble from citizens displeased by the appeals court decision, Ogebe said that local input over Senator Mark’s case was overshadowed by the national challenges being posed by a coalition of civil society organizations that was speaking out on behalf of Nigerian voters.
“What you have in Nigeria now is the equivalent of a litigation insurgency against the last elections. Instead of taking to the streets, the people are taking to the law courts. Now it’s bad only in the sense that it’s overwhelming the judiciary and it’s distracting from the business of governance,” he said
Ogebe predicts that Nigerians are going to continue to have verdicts and election rulings over the rest of the year, including a final take on President Yar’Adua’s entry into office, which is expected after the end of the summer.
"President Yar’Adua has said that he wants to see electoral reform happen in his time. Now if Senator David Mark as senate president will see through an agenda of constitutional and electoral reform, we have a chance to ensure that future elections are free and fair,” says Ogebe.