The battle for Nigeria's presidency has spread to the courts, with at least seven cases filed since late last year to try to disqualify the two top candidates.
The Federal High Court began looking at the lawsuits this week, after the election commission put campaigning on simmer by announcing late Saturday that voting would be delayed for six weeks, until March 28.
Cases have been filed challenging the eligibility of President Goodluck Jonathan and his chief rival, Muhammadu Buhari, to run for the country’s top office.
Political parties can file post-election disputes. The law reserves the pre-electoral period for private citizens. It is not unusual to see hundreds of cases filed, but these challenges are something new.
Most pre-election cases are filed by people upset with the choices of their own political parties, said Senior Advocate of Nigeria Hassan Liman, an attorney and legal analyst. “But what we are having now is beyond the intraparty conflict.”
Constitutional limit questioned
Nigeria’s constitution dates to 1999. At question for Jonathan is whether winning this election could put him over the constitutional two-term limit. He was vice president in 2010 when President Umaru Yar’Adua died. Jonathan served out a year of his predecessor’s mandate before being elected president in 2011.
Individuals behind two lawsuits against Jonathan told VOA the courts must decide if the constitution allows a president to stay in office for a total of nine years.
Liman said the suits against both Jonathan and Buhari raise questions of legal merit.
“When you start to implement and apply certain provisions of the constitution, then you are confronted with certain practical things, then you need the courts to give a proper interpretation,” he said.
One lawsuit struck down
The Federal High Court has fast-tracked one of the Jonathan cases by referring it to the Court of Appeals for interpretation. The high court struck down another lawsuit Wednesday and ordered damages paid to the president, according to local media.
Three suits and a criminal complaint for fraud are seeking to disqualify Buhari on the basis of a missing high school certificate, one of four constitutional requirements to run for president.
Buhari lawyers are challenging the mode of service and the competence of the main suit, which is now adjourned until February 23.
Liman says the case could drag on.
“The onus of proof is on those that are accusing him.... If they call evidence, he, too, will have to call evidence,” he said.
Buhari has run for president in the three previous elections. This is the first time his educational credentials are being formally challenged.
Risks seen in delayed voting
The cases against both candidates point to this election’s high stakes and risks – risks that some say were intensified by the delay.
“Anything could happen in six weeks,” said Clement Nwankwo, executive director of the Policy and Legal Advocacy Center in Abuja.
He’s worried about the election process unraveling.
“Certainly, there are people who do not want elections to happen,” Nwankwo said, suggesting they’re devising “shenanigans” to scuttle voting. “We have seen cases filed in the courts, all of [them] aimed at creating a hiccup in the electoral calendar set up by the electoral commission, and this worries us.”
Rulings on these cases could inflame tensions. They could disqualify one or both presidential candidates before or even, in theory, after the vote, because a pre-election case has no time limit, according to Liman.
The rulings pose a key test for Nigeria’s judiciary. Is it independent? And will its judgments be perceived that way?