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Nigeria’s Supreme Court on Friday quashed an attempt to turf President Umaru Yar’Adua out of office, removing one of the biggest uncertainties overshadowing his 18-month-old administration.
The risk that judges might have ordered a re-run of last year’s deeply flawed presidential elections has undermined Mr Yar’Adua’s government from the outset, contributing to an image of vulnerability worsened by repeated scares over his health.
Although the ruling removes one of the layers of doubt surrounding his presidency, Mr Yar’Adua must now prove he has acquired the grip on government needed to shepherd Nigeria through a period of economic pain caused by plunging prices for its oil.
The ruling quashed speculation surrounding Mr Yar’Adua’s immediate political future, but provided a less than ringing endorsement of the way he came to power. Three out of the seven Supreme Court justices supported the call for a re-run, though the majority decision of the remaining four to reject the appeal prevailed.
The elections held in April last year were widely regarded as some of the worst ever witnessed in Nigeria, marred by flagrant rigging, intimidation and violence. EU observers called them ”not credible.” Human Rights Watch branded them ”a farce.”
Muhammadu Buhari, the former military ruler who came second in the race, had argued that the results should be declared void on the grounds that the ballot papers were not printed with serial numbers. Judges opposed to the re-run said he had failed to prove that lack of serial numbers would substantially have affected the result.
A second appeal by Atiku Abubakar, the former vice-president, who trailed in third, was rejected by six of the seven justices. Mr Abubakar had submitted that he had been denied a chance to campaign properly. A lower court had dismissed both candidates’ cases in February.
Mr Yar’Adua has adopted a contemplative style since taking over from Olusegun Obasanjo, his abrasive predecessor, leaving many Nigerians wondering whether his emphasis on meticulous planning is a poor substitute for decisive action to tackle corruption, a chronic power crisis and unrest in the oil-producing Niger Delta.
The fall in oil prices on global markets means that Nigeria - which depends on oil sales for 80 per cent of its federal revenue - is facing a far rockier road than it has done for Mr Yar’Adua’s first year in office.
After enjoying months of stability, the Naira has shed some 12 per cent of its value against the US dollar in the last two weeks. A dwindling supply of dollars caused activity on the local interbank foreign exchange market to effectively shut down this month, unnerving foreign investors.
The president announced a long-delayed reshuffle in October as a first step towards rejuvenating his cabinet, although Nigerian commentators have given the 13 new names he has submitted for approval to the Senate a distinctly lukewarm reception.
The possibility that the Supreme Court might have decided to order fresh elections had fuelled fears that Africa’s most populous nation could have been about to lurch into a new phase of uncertainty fuelled by a power struggle to replace Mr Yar’Adua and Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president, who would also have been obliged to step down.
With competition sharpened by the prospect of controlling a share of government oil revenues, powerful political ”godfathers” or groups of hired thugs have often played a more influential role in deciding elections than voters since the transition from military to civilian rule in 1999.
The lack of trust in the electoral process has often led to violence, most recently in the central city of Jos, where some 400 people were killed last month after a disputed local poll sparked clashes along religious and ethnic lines.