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Second Beginnings: The New Political Framework

  • C. S. Whitaker

The focus of any discussion of Nigeria at this time in its history is the outlook for success of its recently reconstituted democratic political system. Equally in question should be the validity of external assessments of the Nigerian political situation, some of which in the past have tended, I believe, to rest on misunderstandings of Nigerian politics.

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1. The new Nigerian Constitution stipulated that to be elected president of Nigeria a candidate must win 25 percent of the votes in two-thirds of the nineteen states of the Federation, as well as receive the highest number of votes overall. The distribution requirement was a touchstone of the new architecture. If no candidate achieved this distribution, the choice of president was to be made by an electoral college of the elected representatives of the National Assembly. When the votes were counted in August 1979, Alhaji Shehu Shagari had scored the necessary 25 percent in twelve states but just under 20 percent in a thirteenth state, Kano. If the two-thirds distribution requirement was taken to mean two-thirds of nineteen states, Shagari had fallen short by one state and the electoral college procedure would come into effect. However, at the last minute, before results were announced but after balloting had commenced, the Federal Electoral Commission (FEDECO) decided that the provision did not mean this, but rather that it should be construed to require 25 percent of the votes cast out of the mathematical sum of two-thirds of the number nineteen, or the votes cast in twelve and two-thirds of the states. By this reckoning, the almost 20 percent Shagari vote in the thirteenth state was sufficient to elect Shagari without recourse to the electoral college.

Unsurprisingly, this previously unarticulated meaning of the constitutional provision was denounced by the runner-up, Chief Obafemi Awolowo, leader of the UPN. Next, the Supreme Court of Nigeria, whose membership was hastily constituted in the aftermath of the FEDECO ruling, ruled on the interpretation of the provision, and (with one dissenting opinion plus another concurring opinion that partly supported the logic of the dissenting opinion), the Court found against Awolowo, who had filed suit on the eve of presidential inauguration (the decision had been handed down days earlier). The case was made all the more controversial by virtue of the fact that the Court upheld the outgoing military government’s refusal to release FEDECO documents that Awolowo claimed would show that the interpretation of the two-thirds requirement had been altered to suit the result.

2. The controversy surrounding the passage of a Revenue Allocation Bill in February 1981 also turned, in part, on a FEDECO ruling. A presidentially appointed Commission had made recommendations on revenue-sharing that would have given the Federal government 55 percent. All the UPN legislators plus a mix of elected representatives of other parties favored a larger share for the states. The Government had; seemed to endorse the Commission’s proposal, notably in making use of it in its formulation of a Development Plan.

When the issue came before the National Assembly, the lower chamber voted a bill lowering the Federal share, while the upper House passed a version increasing it to 58.5 percent. Constitutionally, such impasses call upon a Joint Committee of the two Houses to find an acceptable version. The membership of this Committee was affected in the event by a FEDECO ruling recognizing Aminu Kan’s PRP, whose representative then was seated on the Committee, following eruption of a brief physical melee between members at the door of the Joint Committee meeting room. When the Committee voted out a bill sustaining the upper chamber’s formula –by two votes–the president promptly signed this into law, while opponents claimed it properly should have been referred back to the National Assembly. The fact that the Chairman of the Joint Committee cast an original vote in the proceedings further clouded the question of constitutional propriety. This matter is also now before the Supreme Court.

3. Research in connection with this paper was made possible by grants from the Social Science Research Council and the Ford Foundation. Mr. John Adeyemi Adeleke, Jr., assisted in the compilation of the tables.

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African Studies Review
  • ISSN: 1548-4505
  • EISSN: -
  • URL: /core/journals/african-studies-review
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