- By Kasirim Nwuke
On 24th April 2023, Mr. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the man announced by Nigeria’s election umpire, the Independent National Election Commission (INEC) as the winner of the 2023 presidential election, returned to the country from France. He had been away from the country for a month for what his spokespersons described as a well-deserved post-election rest and the opposition said was urgent medical treatment.
A medical device, a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) visible in his right upper arm when he raised his arms to salute supporters who had come to welcome him at the airport lent credence to the claim that he had travelled overseas to seek urgent medical treatment.
INEC had at 0403hrs on 1 March 2023 declared Mr. Tinubu, the ruling party candidate, the winner of the February 25, 2023, presidential election with 8.9 million votes (36.6% of the votes cast). Mr Atiku Abubakar, the candidate of the non-governing party, Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), was declared the first runner-up with 6.98 million votes (29.1%), while Mr. Peter Obi of the Labour Party, who most pre-election polls predicted would win if the elections were free and fair, came third with 6.1 million votes (25.4%). Combined, the opposition won nearly two-thirds of the votes cast in the election.
Most observers, international and Nigerian, noted without hesitation that the conduct of the election fell below acceptable standards and the expectations of the Nigerian people. They also noted that INEC itself failed to abide by its own guidelines.
INEC, to her credit, accepted that there were glitches of a technological nature during the election. The Financial Times of London in an opinion piece dated 1 March 2023, entitled “Nigeria’s badly flawed elections” “urged the courts to take a hard look if Bola Tinubu’s victory is challenged.” The paper noted that “the election was badly mismanaged at best. It failed to set the example needed for West Africa, a region where too many national leaders have extended term limits or resorted to seizing power at gunpoint. Nigeria remains a democracy, but only just.”
The losing candidates have asked the courts to take a hard look at the election result and the process(es) that led to the outcome. Lawyers representing Obi and Atiku, respectively, have filed their petitions. The defendants Tinubu, his party, the APC, and INEC- have filed their responses, and the plaintiffs have filed their sur-rejoinders. Both Obi and Atiku are asking the courts to declare that Tinubu did not win the election; declare them the winner instead or order a do-over election. All is now set for the hearings scheduled to start in the second week of May, less than three weeks before the scheduled inauguration of a new president.
The pleadings of Obi and Atiku are deemed by some observers as a very tall order. Reversal of an announced outcome of a presidential election has never happened in Nigeria. The closest was in 2007, the Yar’Adua case, where the Supreme Court issued a split 4-3 decision in favour of Yar’Adua. But the courts have reversed results in governorship and other elections.
Based on this history, some Nigerians, especially those with a vested interest in securing positions in a Tinubu government, have urged Obi and Atiku to drop their petitions and work with the declared victor for the good of the country (however they define “the good” of country). The idea is that overturning the election will not only test our democracy but could be met with violence from Tinubu’s supporters.
It is clear that the decision of the courts is not what these analysts are petrified about; It is the response of Tinubu and his party, APC, that they fear. The conduct of the APC and Tinubu’s supporters since INEC announced the result justifies the concern. His media team, media outlets owned by him, the APC, the Buhari administration, and its officials have marshaled and devoted enormous resources to shaping the post-election narrative.
Obi is the primary target of the narrative assault. “There is such a thing as absolute power over narrative”, Chinua Achebe wrote in his book Home and Exile, “those who secure this privilege for themselves can arrange stories about others pretty much where, and as, they like.” Tinubu’s team appears to agree with Achebe and is doing its utmost to control the post-election narrative.
President Buhari has described the election as his most important legacy. His Culture and Information Minister, Mr. Lai Mohammed, a man not generally associated with fidelity to truth, has asserted that Buhari has bequeathed Nigeria a most credible election.
From Washington, DC, Mr. Mohammed accused Mr Obi and his running mate, Senator Datti Baba-Ahmed of treason because of the latter’s statement that “swearing in Mr. Tinubu as president on May 29 will mean the end of democracy in Nigeria.
Nobel Literature Laureate Wole Soyinka, a friend of Tinubu’s who had been completely quiet during the election campaign, broke his silence in an interview in which he called Obi’s supporters (Obi-dients) fascists and asserted that the LP VP candidate, Datti used fascistic language to try to intimidate the courts.
Lower-level operatives of Mr. Tinubu’s team have been using fighting words to intimidate Obi and his supporters. A leadership crisis that suddenly emerged in the Labour Party has been blamed by some on the APC. It is alleged that among APC’s many strategies to defeat Obi’s petition is a plan to install a leadership team in the LP that will withdraw Obi’s election petition.
At the time of writing this essay, the Labour Party raised an alarm alleging that Mr. Lamidi Apapa who has been claiming to be the party’s interim chairman even though the party has suspended him and his team, has approached the Presidential Election Petition Tribunal to ask it to dismiss all the cases filed by the party and its presidential candidate, Mr. Obi against Tinubu, the ruling APC, and INEC.
Another strategy, less blunt than the claims and assertions of victory, the fighting words, and the attempt to hijack the Labour Party and defeat Obi from within deployed by APC and Tinubu’s team is cognitive manipulation and gaslighting. Supporters of the ruling party are making the argument that the decision to contest the result is a direct threat to the unity of the country, no matter the degree of disenfranchisement of the Nigerian voter, no matter the extent of the breach of the electoral laws and the Constitution of the country.
The pot should not be roiled; the boat should not be rocked. The losing candidates should prepare for 2027 instead of upsetting the country. The gaslighting consists in calling Obi-dients the most repulsive thing ever to happen in Nigerian politics, saying that Obi-dients are extremely intolerant and rude and do not discriminate between opponents and those who support them and wish them well.
Except in the responses filed by the defendants, none of the arguments for the withdrawal of the election petitions or the cognitive manipulation and gaslighting is contingent on the petitions being deemed frivolous, unwarranted, unnecessary.
Obi and Atiku have ignored pleas and calls to abandon their petitions in the “interest” of the country; it matters not to those appealing to Obi and Atiku to withdraw their petitions that the interest of the country may not have been served or advanced by the manipulation of the elections, that the announced result may not represent the will of the Nigerian people. Obi-dients are not troubled by attacks on their sanity and have not succumbed to cognitive manipulation. They have fought back. Valiantly.
No one knows or can predict how the trials will go; not even some of the country’s leading lawyers, some of whom have surfaced recent bizarre election decisions of the courts and discussed the unpredictability of the court. It is possible that Obi and Atiku have a very weak case and their petitions will be dead on arrival, as asserted by former Enugu State senator Chimaroke Nnamani, who lost his re-election bid to Obi’s candidate.
Statements such as Nnamani’s deny rationality to Obi and Atiku, their supporters, and their legal teams. If the petitions are weak, Obi and Atiku are sufficiently rational not to proceed with what they know will be a failure. After all, Rabiu Kwankwaso, the fourth-place candidate, accepting that his case is weak, has not filed a petition.
But it could also be that though Obi’s and Atiku’s claims may be very strong, it is possible that their legal teams are incompetent and do not have sufficient expertise in Nigeria’s electoral law matters. Similarly, Tinubu, APC, and INEC (the defendants) may have a solid defense and immensely competent legal teams. No one knows. Only a trial will reveal that. Anyone who cares about the future of democracy in Nigeria and West Africa will agree that the legal challenge is good for the country, it is good for the future of democracy.
Any decision by the Election Tribunal and the Supreme Court will be a significant contribution to the development of jurisprudence on election matters. The ruling party, its candidate, and its vocal supporters do not leave room for the possibility that the violations of the electoral act and the constitution were very egregious and may have substantially affected the outcome announced by INEC.
They do not entertain any doubts that Nigeria’s democracy cannot grow on the basis of badly organized, repeatedly flawed, and mismanaged elections. It is hard to see the APC openly acknowledging that Tinubu may not have won the election. Not surprising because acknowledging that possibility will be inconsistent with Tinubu’s political philosophy.
After all, Tinubu believes that “it is (his) turn” (Emi Lo kan) and that “Political power is not served on a platter of gold, it is not served a la carte. You have to grab it, snatch it, and run with it.” Having snatched and grabbed it, it is inconceivable that Tinubu will not run with it now that he has it.
But should the country allow him to if the process that gave him “victory” was deeply flawed? If the announced outcome is unlawful? Those are the moral and legal questions before the courts. The justices should not be afraid to overturn the presidential election if the evidence shows substantially that they should.
The justices should not be intimidated by the APC, the Tinubu team, the Buhari administration and the fear of possible violence by Tinubu’s supporters (or indeed Obi’s supporters) should it not find in their favour. This is the time for courage in the national interest. Responsibility for any violent response to the court’s decision will rightfully belong to politicians because voters in general follow the actions and cues of their leaders. Nigerians will hold them accountable.
Nigerians should demand that the leaders of all the political parties involved in the litigation must explain the judicial process to their voters and underscore to them, the imperative of respect for the outcome of the judicial process. Obi has been doing that; he has been urging his supporters to remain calm and not be instigated into violent action.
Tinubu’s team has not. Instead, his mouthpieces have been dangerously bellicose, belligerent, and disrespectful of Obi’s right to seek judicial review of the election’s outcome and processes. How the APC and Tinubu react should the courts not find in their favour will determine how their supporters will react too.
The fear is that Tinubu/APC supporters are much more likely to respond to adverse court decision with violence. Obi/LP and Atiku/PDP supporters are in a Nash equilibrium. They have “lost” the election and cannot be in any position worse than they are in. Many of them have discounted the possibility of victory at the courts and have resumed their normal lives.
But Tinubu/APC supporters on the other hand will be in a position worse than they are currently in if the election result were to be overturned. This is why they are much more likely to respond to an adverse decision with violence. Their conduct since Obi and Atiku went to court lends credence to this view.
The price of peace cannot and must not be the acceptance of a terribly rigged outcome of a horribly mismanaged election with loads and loads of electoral malpractices. Nigerians must stop accepting what they know to be very bad in the interest of peace. The media should stop advancing such views.
The most secure insurance against instability and reinforcement for peace and unity in Nigeria are elections in which no one’s rights to the exercise of the rights and prerogatives of full citizenship are circumscribed or extinguished.
Judicial review of elections widely deemed to have been badly mismanaged and rigged is the instrument to ensure the exercise of full citizenship rights. It is a guardrail against impunity and blatant disregard for the wishes and will of the people. It is an additional instrument to shore up democracy.
The courts should not be intimidated by threats of violence, there is no choice for them to make between democracy and stability. For years they have chosen stability over advancing Nigeria’s democracy. Elections have got worse. Nigeria has become less stable as the impunity of politicians and their supporters has become normalized.
For many reasons, Nigeria will not burn if the announced result of the presidential election is overturned: a large plurality of Nigerians believe that the election was manipulated in favour of the ruling party candidate; the ruling APC is not popular as twice as many voters voted against it than voted for it.
Tinubu has an acceptance and popularity deficit in many parts of the country. His cult of personality is limited mainly to Lagos State; any violent reaction to a decision overturning the election will be geographically and ethnically confined in scope: protesters will mostly be drawn from his Yoruba ethnic group, and mostly from Lagos State, where the non-indigenous Yoruba population is very visible.
Protest may not be widespread in other parts of western Nigeria because of the low visibility of non-indigenes, especially Igbo, in other parts of the zone. As well, Nigerians for the most part accept the decisions of the courts even as they have serious concerns about the independence and neutrality of the Supreme Court on political matters.
Without a doubt, it will be unprecedented in Nigeria to overturn the announced result of a presidential election. But there is always a precedent. A precedent will discourage rigging in future elections. “Go to court”, a statement frequently made by the political parties accused to have manipulated the elections, will cease to be a winning strategy.
Should the courts find sufficient reason to overturn the announced result, they should do so with the interest of the country only in view. The Supreme Court of Nigeria will be in good company should it do so. Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, and Malawi have overturned the announced results of presidential elections. All three countries continue to thrive; they did not burn down. Overturning the election, if the evidence supports it, will perhaps be the biggest step taken by Nigeria in the 24 years of post-military rule to secure and advance her democracy.