Lagos, Nigeria – On Wednesday night, Nigeria’s presidential election tribunal upheld Bola Tinubu’s victory in the highly disputed presidential election of February 25, causing opposition supporters to despair about the state of the country.
The election was a tightly-contested affair between Tinubu who is now president and the leading opposition candidates – the People’s Democratic Party’s Atiku Abubakar and Labour Party’s Peter Obi.
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The opposition parties, in separate suits, claimed Tinubu was not eligible to run for the presidency, citing alleged dual citizenship and drug conviction cases in the United States. Other arguments include over-voting, manipulation of results, forged certificates and Tinubu’s failure to garner 25 percent of votes in the capital city. All of them were thrown out by the court.
The opposition parties have rejected the judgement, one that their supporters say the process was already a foregone conclusion.
“For a fact, I was not surprised at the result. I have little or no faith in the judiciary following the past judgements that have been passed. But I did not expect that the quality of the judgement would be as poor as it is,” Armstrong Zittas, a 25-year-old teacher and a PDP member in Lafia, two hours east of Abuja, told Al Jazeera.
“This was more of a pronouncement than a judgement. It is only in this part of the world that you will make a law and not abide by that law.”
An unsurprising outcome
The affirmation of Tinubu’s victory has not come as a surprise to many. In Nigeria, no presidential election has ever been overturned since 1999 despite repeated challenges and continued electoral malpractice.
According to Nigeria’s constitution, a challenge to the electoral commission’s declaration cannot stop the inauguration of the winner. This process, experts have said, makes it an uphill task for a sitting president to be removed.
“It was near impossible that they were going to dislodge a sitting president, and all of the things we have seen put some sort of credence that they were not going to do that,” Tunde Ajileye, a partner at SBM Intelligence, a Lagos-based geopolitical intelligence consultancy, said. “Once one of the defendants in electoral matters is sworn and they essentially have state power, the field of play is no longer level in a society like Nigeria.”
Motunrayo Koyejo, a Lagos-based software engineer who voted for the Labour Party in the election, followed the proceedings online. She said she was well aware of the history of disputed elections but was hoping for a surprise. Not long after the proceedings began, her hope dried up.
“If you look at the previous tribunals that have happened in the country, there were elections that were bad and nothing happened. I was just waiting for them to surprise me,” she said.
‘The real villain’
Central to the legal drama was the country’s electoral commission. Following the amendment to the electoral law, which gave the commission the power to decide the mode of transmission of results, the commission introduced the Bimodal Voters Accreditation System (BVAS), marking a turn for the country’s electoral process.
This technology, expected to promote transparency, galvanised particularly young voters pushing the country’s voting population to its highest ever, at 93.4 million. The voters under 35 comprised 40 percent of the bloc.
On election day, there was reported widespread technological failure, and INEC resorted to manual vote transmission, a decision that the opposition claims gave room for malpractice. The tribunal ruled against the opposition parties, citing that the commission had the power to decide what mode to use.
That conclusion represents a turn for the worse, some analysts said.
“What is more damaging to our democracy is that we have compromised our election further. The key conclusions [from the judgement] are that no BVAS and electronic transmission of results is discretionary. Those two things were what created hope in many Nigerians heading into the 2023 elections,” Ayisha Osori, director of Open Society Foundations, said.
Despite a court order, the commission also refused to make available the requested data to the opposition which, according to one of the presiding judges, hampered the opposition’s chances.
“If INEC was able to ignore a court order during a process of the tribunal, what is the evidence they were taking the tribunal seriously and that the tribunal was taking itself seriously as well? In this election, they are the real villain,” Ajileye said.
With only 37 percent of votes garnered, the slimmest win margin for any president in Nigeria’s history, his first 100 days in office have not convinced his detractors.
Since Tinubu was sworn in, he has taken the unpopular route of removing fuel subsidy and backing devaluation of the currency, which has worsened costs of living. He also named the country’s largest-ever ministerial cabinet, a 42-man team at a time of mounting debts inherited from his predecessor Muhammadu Buhari, and concerns about public spending.
On the international scene, Tinubu, chair of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been seen as hasty for steering the West African bloc towards armed conflict with the military government in Niger.
Many of his critics were hoping that the tribunal would upturn his victory, in the hope of an improved economic situation.
“Costs of living have gone very bad. Buhari was bad, but this is worse. I went out to get soda yesterday and saw that the price has tripled,” Koyejo said.
The tribunal’s decision matter is expected to be taken to the Supreme Court which will have the final say but opposition supporters are less confident in the judiciary.
And some have said the electoral system itself needs restructuring before the next elections.
“There’s understandably some disillusionment with how the result has come out for some people – if we take into account the over 60 percent of voters who did not vote the new administration,” Afolabi Adekaiyaoja, an analyst at the Centre for Democracy and Development said.
“There’s a significant amount of work in amending election legislation that needs to be addressed for future polls to be conducted freely.”