A panel of five judges at Nigeria‘s appellate court opened a hearing on Wednesday into legal challenges filed by the country’s main opposition against the outcome of February’s presidential polls, as a throng of protesting women converged outside.
The tribunal fixed May 15 as the date to begin hearing the filed petitions in the capital, Abuja.
The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and its candidate, former vice president Atiku Abubakar, are challenging the re-election of President Muhammadu Buhari of the ruling All Progressives’ Congress (APC), which triumphed with more than four million votes.
Local and international observers said the election was tarnished by low turnout and a number of irregularities, including deadly violence and vote-buying.
The Situation Room, a coalition of civic organisations, said there were at least 47 deaths. Another local monitor, YIAGA Africa, said notwithstanding the drawbacks, the “announced election results reflect the votes cast”.
The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) also pushed back the polls by a week from the initial date after encountering logistical problems made worse by arson attacks on at least two of its offices and bad weather for flights carrying electoral materials.
An outright rejection of the results by Atiku triggered weeks of melodrama and mudslinging from followers of both candidates.
The PDP said it has technical experts from Microsoft and Oracle to corroborate its position that the announced results were tampered with. It is presenting the court with another set of results it said are from INEC’s official web server that shows a PDP victory by 1.6 million votes.
INEC responded to the allegations, saying the alternative set was fabricated and “invented for the purpose of this case”.
“Like their campaign, PDP’s tribunal case is a total effort in futility,” Olusegun Dada, an APC member and presidential media team volunteer, told Al Jazeera.
“The alternative results theory is mostly hogwash. But like other well-meaning Nigerians, I will like to see how they intend to prove how 71 political parties ran in an election and their server recorded votes for only two candidates.”
The president’s legal team has also slammed Atiku, claiming the opposition leader is Cameroonian by heritage and therefore not eligible to contest the Nigerian presidency.
Campaign spokesman Festus Keyamo also urged the secret police to investigate PDP’s “illegal access” to INEC technology, but analysts say if the data is proven to be correct beyond a reasonable doubt in court, the APC may have a real case on its hands, regardless of how the evidence was obtained.
“Nigeria doesn’t have the ‘fruit of a poisonous tree’ doctrine for evidence admissibility in court, so if Atiku can indeed prove that the results he has are genuine, he may have a case,” argued Tunde Ajileye, a partner at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based political and economic risk advisory.
“However, the electoral act does not explicitly specify electronic transmission, so it’s possible to argue that the only legally binding result is the one that went through the manual process.”
A long legal battle is being anticipated over the following months given the slow pace of Nigeria’s judiciary.
“All in all, it’s likely we will have a drawn-out battle,” said Ajileye. “Atiku has the [financial] resources to continue pursuit and that’s usually a factor.”
No presidential election has ever been overturned in Nigeria’s history, including the 2007 one that was also marred by widespread violence, voter intimidation, and non-existent polling units. The winner, Umaru Yar’adua, conceded the process had “shortcomings”.
Atiku, who came a distant third in that election behind Yar’adua and Buhari, is hoping to get one up against history, emboldened by his running mate’s good fortune in years’ past.
Peter Obi, a former governor of Anambra in southeastern Nigeria, became the first person to benefit from upturned election results in 2006.