Five of Nigeria’s powerful ruling party state governors, including one in the volatile Niger Delta oil region, won a court ruling on Wednesday which could prevent them having to stand for re-election in April polls.
Africa’s most populous nation is due to hold presidential, parliamentary and state elections in April, but the five argued that their states should be exempted from governorship votes because they had not yet completed full four-year terms.
The governors of Bayelsa and Cross River states in the southern Niger Delta, Kogi and Adamawa in central Nigeria and Sokoto in the north all had their 2007 election victories overturned by the courts but went on to win re-runs the following year.
The five governors went to court in the capital Abuja to prevent the electoral commission (INEC) from forcing fresh elections before they had completed full terms.
“INEC cannot validly conduct elections in the five states until 60 days to the expiration of the tenure of the present occupants,” Judge Adamu Bello told the Federal High Court, after ruling in their favour.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) faces a tough battle defending a strong parliamentary majority and control of over two thirds of the 36 states. The court decision means it may avoid some of the fiercest contests.
The decision, which may be challenged at an appeals court, could also apply to other states in which PDP governors came to office more than a year after the 2007 elections, including Delta and Rivers in the Niger Delta.
President Goodluck Jonathan is widely considered the frontrunner in the presidential race, won by the PDP candidate at every election since the end of military rule 12 years ago.
But the support of powerful state governors, many of whom control budgets larger than some neighbouring countries, will be key to his ability to govern firmly.
Bayelsa and Delta state, which alongside Rivers are home to Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry, were already expected to be among the main election flashpoints.
The region saw years of attacks by militant gangs, many of them originally backed by politicians to help rig elections, on energy industry facilities until a government amnesty in 2009. It remains awash with arms and frustrated youths.
There is a bitter rivalry between Bayelsa’s current governor Timipre Sylva and former presidential adviser Timi Alaibe, who was the main man on the ground responsible for implementing the amnesty and who quit the PDP to challenge Sylva at the polls.
Sylva saw himself politically overshadowed by Alaibe’s success with the amnesty and the rivalry has already turned violent, including several bombs and attacks by gunmen on political offices and rallies.
“The court ruling affirming Governor Sylva’s tenure expires in 2012 is a victory for Bayelsa state, democracy and the rule of law in Nigeria,” Sylva’s press secretary Doifie Ola said.
Alaibe said he was consulting with his lawyers.
In Delta state, Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan’s office said the court ruling meant he too would not have to face an election.
“The import of the judgment is applicable to Delta state … It has a very, very positive implication for Governor Uduaghan,” his special assistant Paul Odili told Reuters.
Uduaghan was declared winner of a re-run election in January but his main opponent, Great Ogboru, questioned the conduct of the polls and his supporters alleged rigging, setting the stage for what would have been a fierce showdown in April.
Some of the other states covered by the ruling were also expected to be tough battles for the PDP, including Adamawa state, home to Nuhu Ribadu, a former anti-corruption chief and opposition challenger to Jonathan at the presidential polls.