It would be unprecedented in Africa for a court to remove a sitting president.

But in Nigeria, the combination of electoral fraud, an increasingly assertive judiciary and a head of state seemingly determined to promote the rule of law, even at risk of becoming its most prominent casualty, has brought such an outcome into the realms of possibility.

April’s polls, which brought President Umaru Yar’Adua to power, were described by European Union monitors as “not credible”, by Human Rights Watch as a “farce” and by many Nigerian observers as the worst in their history. But at the time, when lawyers tried and failed to overturn results, a successful legal challenge seemed remote.

To the political class in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, it has become less so in recent weeks. By annulling the election of five state governors, the courts have offered a rare challenge to the dominance of Mr Yar’Adua’s ruling People’s Democratic party (PDP). With many cases still pending in Nigeria’s 36 states, further upsets seem likely.

When it comes to the presidency, the decision will be more delicate. A veteran politician says judges would have to weigh the risk of throwing the country of 140m people into political turmoil against the potential damage to Nigeria’s fledgling democracy in endorsing a flawed vote – should it be ruled as such.

A security source said there were also concerns that the tribunals could be manipulated by disgruntled factions of the ruling elite.

The case in Abuja stems from petitions brought by Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler who came a distant second in the presidential polls, and Atiku Abubakar, the former vice-president, who trailed in third place. Their lawyers finished presenting evidence of abuses to a special tribunal last week and believe it was sufficient to compel judges to order a fresh vote.

“This election has shaken democracy to its foundations,” said Emeka Ngige, one of the lawyers seeking to annul the results. “The only way to restore that confidence is by a re-run.”

Mr Ngige reeled off a range of allegations, from party agents inventing results to the inclusion of four-year-olds on electoral lists.

Advocates for the electoral authorities and Mr Yar’Adua are due to begin presenting their cases in hearings that resume on Thursday. They will argue that any flaws were not sufficient to influence the result. A ruling could be made by February, although appeals may follow.

The president’s critics say the fact that a re-run is even being discussed as a possibility reflects a wider crisis of legitimacy. “The president is terribly constrained in his fight against corruption, in his belief in due process, by the way he came to power,” said Okwesilieze Nwodo, deputy campaign director for Mr Abubakar, one of the petitioners. “He’s said the right things at the right times, but we’re worried that there’s not enough action.”

Campaigners say swifter progress should have been made in prosecuting ex-governors facing corruption charges. Signs of a power struggle within the PDP and rumours about Mr Yar’Adua’s health have fuelled uncertainty.

Mr Yar’Adua’s hands-off style, his reluctance to interfere in the affairs of the National Assembly and willingness to place his future in the hands of the judiciary mark a departure from Nigerian norms and are in contrast to his domineering predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo. This has probably won him more support than he had when elected, a relative unknown anointed as the PDP candidate by Mr Obasanjo.

Mr Yar’Adua has vowed to respect the ruling of the tribunal and to revise the way elections are held. His ambition, he says, is to build institutions that survive his tenure. Nigerians, however, can no longer be quite sure how long that will be.

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