In Nigeria’s presidential elections in February, incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari was declared the winner, but his primary opponent, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, is challenging those results in court. According to the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC), Buhari received [PDF] 15.2 million votes, or about 56 percent of the total, to Atiku’s 11.3 million, or 41 percent.
On March 18, Atiku Abubakar issued a legal challenge to the election results on the basis of “irregularities.” According to his party’s parallel tabulation, he won by more than two million votes. The Buhari camp, predictably, rejects the allegations and maintains that the elections were free and fair. Meanwhile, inauguration day is May 29. Almost certainly the court ruling will occur after President Buhari has been inaugurated for his second term.
In Nigeria, elections are not over when the voting is finished, the ballots are counted, the winner is announced, and the foreign observers have gone home. Candidates unhappy with the results can lodge a legal challenge with a presidential election tribunal appointed by the Supreme Court, which issues a ruling within 180 days of the appeal.
After elections in 2003, 2007, and 2011, Buhari as an opposition candidate filed such appeals and lost. In 2015, however, Buhari was declared the winner over incumbent Goodluck Jonathan in the presidential election. To considerable surprise, Jonathan conceded and did not appeal to the courts. Buhari thereupon became the first opposition candidate in Nigeria’s modern history to assume the presidency through the ballot box. Since the restoration of civilian government in 1999, no presidential election has been overturned. However, gubernatorial and senate elections on a number of occasions have been annulled and new elections held.
The fact that Nigeria has in place a procedure by which defeated candidates can appeal probably reduces the political temperature in the aftermath of a close election. As for the Supreme Court, President Buhari removed the sitting chief justice shortly before the elections on the basis of allegations of corruption. While the judicial system is widely regarded as corrupt in Nigeria, the Supreme Court is seen as more independent of the government than lower courts. Supreme Court rulings against the government have occurred, so the possibility of a decision favorable to Atiku, if at present unlikely, cannot be ruled out once the evidence is presented. New elections, should they occur, would likely lead to instability, at least initially.