Atiku Abubakar’s challenge of the election of Muhammadu Buhari currently going on at the election petition tribunal has thrown up a serious question he did not even contemplate. Who is a Nigerian? This puzzle will unsettle many people who thought the question of their nationality has long been settled. After this dispute is resolved, many people would scramble to obtain the national identity card they had ignored for too long.
Nothing had prepared the nation for the kind of arguments that would be tendered by lawyers as they attempt to convince the tribunal about the validity of their case. It came as a shock to read in the press last Saturday the claim by the APC that Atiku Abubakar was not a Nigerian but a Cameroonian. On paper, the submission by the APC sounded unsustainable and hilarious, so comical it was difficult to hiss, cry, or laugh. If the tribunal upholds that argument, the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) must take full responsibility for the blunder and oversight in verifying Atiku’s nationality. By law, INEC is required to vet and endorse or disapprove candidates whose names were submitted by their political parties to contest elections.
The claim made at the election petition tribunal that Atiku Abubakar was a Cameroonian received wide coverage in the press. That was how bizarre many people viewed the assertion. Before now, there has been no question that Atiku hailed from Adamawa State. However, the APC has just challenged that widely held view when it told the tribunal that Atiku was “not a citizen of Nigeria by birth and ought not to have even been allowed in the first place, to contest the election.” It was a dizzying argument. That claim raised troubling questions that should concern all of us, not only about the former Vice-President’s nationality, identity, state of origin, cultural background, and his birthright.
But why have all these issues emerged? These questions have arisen because Atiku dared to challenge the legality of Buhari’s election. Think about it this way. Would the APC have raised questions over Atiku’s nationality if Atiku did not challenge INEC’s declaration of Buhari as the winner of the presidential election? This is a case of politics with bitterness.
Even before voters lined up at polling units to cast their ballot in the February 23, 2019, presidential election, it was clear the outcome of the election would be vigorously contested. The first phase of that battle has just started at the tribunal. So far, the animosities have followed the script. The combatants have not disappointed.
The hearing of the petition filed by the PDP and Atiku Abubakar was always going to throw up surprises. So far, that hearing is going according to public expectations. The APC is defending the validity of Buhari’s election victory. The party believes Buhari won the election clearly, cleanly, fairly, and legitimately. The PDP is seeking to produce evidence to show to the tribunal that the presidential election was blighted by massive fraud, unprecedented violence, intimidation, extraordinary rigging, ballot box snatching, the substitution of lawful votes with illegally thumb-printed ballot papers, and criminal collaboration between INEC officials, party agents, and security officials.
Atiku and PDP’s challenge revolves around the integrity of the way the presidential election was conducted. As in every legal challenge, evidence will be crucial. Cases are decided, lost or won on the strength of the enormity and credibility of evidence produced before a tribunal or court of law. This is a high-profile case. But it is not an unusual case. It is not the first time the nation would see the result of a presidential election challenged strenuously at an election petition tribunal. What gives this case a special dash of colour is the contrasting positions of the winner and the challenger, and their iron determination to triumph.
The bitter contest over the lawful winner of the presidential election confirms that politics in Nigeria is a do-or-die affair. In that sleazy environment, politicians hurl mud at one another, blackmail their opponents, and say outrageous things to enable them to gain traction or advantage over their opponents.
The current attempts to silence Atiku and blunt his efforts to overturn the results of the election do not dignify our nation. Every politician must be granted an opportunity to challenge the outcome of an election blemished by contraventions of the rules. Keeping silent is not an option. The assumption that time would heal all election-related wounds must be discouraged. Gross violations of the human rights of voters should not be tolerated or be swept underneath the rug. That is the philosophy that drives Atiku’s determination to challenge the presidential election result.
It is impertinent to attempt to persuade political candidates with genuine evidence of unfair treatment to drop their petition and wait for the next election. This was the narrow view that emerged soon after the PDP and Atiku hinted they would challenge INEC’s declaration of Buhari as the winner of the 2019 presidential election. Even before that announcement, traditional rulers, religious leaders, and other high-profile citizens had started to call on Atiku to let the election results stand, to wait for his turn in 2023 (as if the outcome of that future election has been decided), to look forward and not backward, and to overlook the incompetence of INEC officials.
It has become standard practice, after every election, for some narrow-minded social reformers to plead for national unity amid massive injustice perpetrated against a presidential candidate. That is precisely the moral burden that Nigeria carries. We like to sanctify evil with the hope that things would resolve themselves over a period of time. No one ever ponders how the country would fix the flagrant violations of the rights of voters to choose their president in a free, fair, credible, and peaceful election.
Every time we accept to condone election fraud, we bestow legitimacy on criminal behaviour by people given the responsibility to conduct free, fair, and credible elections in the country. This is the point we should keep in mind. Atiku is entitled under our constitution to challenge the outcome of the presidential election. While we grapple with a difficult situation hoisted on everyone by the discredited INEC chairperson and his officials, we must also be mindful of the severity of the electoral indiscretions that now constitute a wedge to the nation’s socio-economic progress.
It is not that Atiku and the PDP are incapable of forgiving Mahmood Yakubu and his officials. The greater message is that, if the perpetrators of election fraud are not punished determinedly and powerfully, Nigeria would be sentenced to experience greater fraud in future elections. This is the context in which those preaching forgiveness should be reminded that their overbearing advice should be directed to the lawbreakers rather than the victims of manipulated election results.
Let me reinforce this point. Every election fraud that goes without punishment conveys the wrong message that cheating is a lawful way to attain public office.