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Disputed State Election Boosts Possibility of Further Legal Challenges by Nigerian Opposition

Segun Oni, the candidate of Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), has been declared winner of a hotly contested gubernatorial race in southwestern Ekiti state. The opposition Action Congress party (AC) is vowing to challenge results of Tuesday’s re-run of the 2007 governor’s race, charging the vote again was rigged. Washington attorney Emmanuel Ogebe says that a disputed outcome could have an unfortunate impact on Nigeria’s Independent Electoral Commission, INEC, and on the conduct of the country’s 2011 national elections.

“This is actually a litmus test for things to come. For a government that came in under universally discredited elections that involved not just disappearing ballot boxes, but disappearing electoral commissioners, this is really a sad commentary on how badly things have gone,” he said.

A two-year legal battle over the Ekiti governorship recently ended in a Nigerian appeals court decision that annulled the 2007 contest, necessitating Tuesday’s replay of the faceoff between Oni and AC candidate Kayode Fayemi. Ogebe, who is a special legal consultant on Nigeria focusing on human rights issues, says that all signs point to the opposition continuing to seek a reversal of this week’s results.

“Ekiti state is one of the states where the opposition did a very wonderful job of documenting the abuse that occurred in the last (2007) elections. And I believe that this time around, there were further abuses that occurred that will once again go to litigation. So we’re definitely going to see an appeal going back to the courts,” he predicted.

Shortly after Oni, who was turned out of office two years ago on charges of mass vote fraud, was announced as Tuesday’s winner by a margin of about 4,000 votes, protesting youths in the state capital Ado-Ekiti began setting bonfires. Police say the situation has calmed down since then. Attorney Ogebe points out that a lot was at stake for the Action Congress Party and its candidate in this race, and they are not about to drop a legal challenge without a fight.

“Whether the youths in the state will stop the violence, allow the judicial to continue is anyone’s guess. But Fayemi, the candidate for the AC, is a well-known activist who fought for democracy globally. And I don’t see him giving up that easily on this election,” he observed.

Ekiti holds strategic value for both the AC and the ruling PDP. So much so that reform-minded Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua went to great lengths to risk the integrity and commitment of his national administration to political reform on the conduct and fair outcome of the just-ended Ekiti campaign. Nigerian-born Ogebe says the stakes in southwestern Ekiti state are high.

“It is of strategic value to the ruling party because the south has generally been a stronghold of the opposition and they couldn’t afford to lose a key state like Ekiti,” he noted.

A loss for the AC also dampens their search for a viable national candidate to take on the powerful PDP two years from now. However, Ogebe says that continuing tumult and troubles for Nigerians at the ballot box signal a potential loss of confidence, not only in incumbent President Yar’Adua, who has promised to enact political reforms in parliament, but also toward INEC, which he says shows no signs of improving the job it is doing.

"We are literally weeks away from the second anniversary of the administration, and they came in under suspect elections and promised electoral reform. There’s precious little on this landscape to show that any steps have been made to reform the electoral system, and what has just happened in Ekiti has further dampened the spirits of Nigerians and crushed their belief that there is going to be any change between now and 2011,” he claimed.