Nigeria Court Decision Averts Constitutional Crisis

  • Monday, December 15, 2008 - By Howard Lesser
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Nigeria’s president Umaru Yar’Adua has welcomed a supreme court decision vindicating his 2007 election with a pledge to speed up reforms to ensure fairness in the electoral process. The Abuja court decision Friday ended months of legal challenges to Mr. Yar’Adua’s April 2007 victory by opposition candidates Atiku Abubakar and Muhammadu Buhari and lifts a stumbling block that has delayed fighting corruption in Nigeria. Nigerian-born Washington, DC attorney Emmanuel Ogebe says that the verdict does much to free up President Yar’Adua from a governing logjam, but falls far from giving him a clear public mandate.

“This was the 11-hundred pound gorilla in the room, and it has been blamed for the president’s inability to act or perform decisively since he came to power.Now it’s not clear if the president will perform any better if his legal challenges have been resolved.That said, a 4-3 split decision of the supreme court is not a clear mandate.This was the closest Nigeria has ever been to losing the presidency by just one vote.So if the president assumes that this is a mandate, it’s not.If anything, it should send him back to the trenches to ensure that he achieves electoral reform – systemic reform that will ensure that the nation never faces this same kind of uncertainty in the future,” he said.

Last week, President Yar’Adua launched a new anti-corruption campaign and said one possible step might include lifting immunity from top government officials, including himself.Emmanuel Ogebe says that making the president, the vice president, and Nigerian state governors drop their guaranteed immunity from prosecution while in office would send a strong signal that the public is clamoring for.

“America continues to be a model to the Nigerian constitution and to Nigerian politicians on what’s good and what’s not.So with what has just happened in Chicago with the (Illinois) governor there being indicted and actually arrested, there’s going to be a growing interest in Nigeria for immunity to be removed so that governors can be arrested and prosecuted.In Chicago, apparently the last governors have been imprisoned.So Nigerians are looking at that and saying, ‘if that can happen in America, why can’t we have this at home?’ So that’s clearly one issue that the Nigerian public is interested in,” he said.

If Nigeria’s supreme court had ruled in favor of the election challenge brought on by candidates Abubakar and Buhari, attorney Ogebe says the court could have thrown the government into great uncertainty because, he argues, there is no constitutional procedure of succession spelled out if a president is stripped of his power and forced to leave office for legal reasons.

“There is no constitutional provision that addresses a situation where the courts remove the president.So the courts would have had to decide whether the Senate president should take over or whether the courts themselves would require the Chief Justice of Nigeria to take over.Both actions, if either of them had occurred, would have been an illegality that would have just been created on the spur of the moment.Now in that dangerous kind of flux situation, the military could very well be tempted to say, since the constitution does not address this, let’s go in.So we werereally looking at a very dicey situation in Nigeria,” he said.

If Nigerian Senate President David Mark, who is mandated by the constitution were to have taken over had the supreme court ruled against Mr. Yar’Adua, Mark would have had to hold elections within six months.Emmanuel Ogebe says that the National Assembly could also thwart that goalof new elections by means of conducting an overhaul of Nigeria’s constitution.For those reasons, he argues that the court decision late last week closed the door on a situation for which no one in Nigeria had a legitimate answer on how it would have played out.

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