Is Nigeria’s president fit to rule? Ask your lawyer.

If you think there are a lot of lawyers in Washington, just go to Nigeria. Today from the capital city in Abuja, the prominent Nigerian laywer Bamidele Aturu suceeded in doing what the country’s cabinet, senate, governors, ruling party, and protesting citizens could not: force the government to decide whether its missing president — who ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
AMINU AB UBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images
AMINU AB UBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images
AMINU AB UBAKAR/AFP/Getty Images

If you think there are a lot of lawyers in Washington, just go to Nigeria. Today from the capital city in Abuja, the prominent Nigerian laywer Bamidele Aturu suceeded in doing what the country's cabinet, senate, governors, ruling party, and protesting citizens could not: force the government to decide whether its missing president -- who has spent the last two months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment -- is fit to rule. According to the court judgement, the cabinet has just 14 days to decide. And the cabinet was quick to say it will comply.

This is all very intriguing, of course. What on earth does one make of Africa's most-populous country being a headless beast? 

But here's what I find most interesting of all: little by little, and without anyone noticing, Nigeria's judiciary is becoming its democracy. In other words, it's law suits, not votes, that are keeping the politicians on their toes. This is, as I wrote once before, democracy by court order.

If you think there are a lot of lawyers in Washington, just go to Nigeria. Today from the capital city in Abuja, the prominent Nigerian laywer Bamidele Aturu suceeded in doing what the country’s cabinet, senate, governors, ruling party, and protesting citizens could not: force the government to decide whether its missing president — who has spent the last two months in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment — is fit to rule. According to the court judgement, the cabinet has just 14 days to decide. And the cabinet was quick to say it will comply.

This is all very intriguing, of course. What on earth does one make of Africa’s most-populous country being a headless beast? 

But here’s what I find most interesting of all: little by little, and without anyone noticing, Nigeria’s judiciary is becoming its democracy. In other words, it’s law suits, not votes, that are keeping the politicians on their toes. This is, as I wrote once before, democracy by court order.

It all goes back to the last elections, in which Umaru Yar’Adua won through a terribly rigged vote. The charges of bad electoral behavior went all the way up to the Supreme Court, where the justices got within inches of rendering the entire election void. It was as close as anyone has ever gotten to holding politicians accounting for their vote-rigging habit. (And in some of Nigeria’s state elections, the votes really were overturned.) Since it was coming from Nigeria’s own courts, the government could do little to stop it. I felt the excitement of that law suit the way that I imagine some people feel a protest or broad-based social movement. Finally, there was political momentum. Finally, people could breathe in a bit of democracy.

There have been other, less blockbuster examples: the courts succeeded in trying tobacco companies for their activities in Nigeria. They’ve gone after Pfizer for drug tests that prosecuting laywers (one is pictured above) say were illegal. Lawyers worked through the courts to end the military detention of the country’s most notorious rebel leader prisoner. (Yes, probably a good thing he was detained. Not so good that he was kept first in Angola and then in a secret cell.) And a whole crew of self-proclaimed human rights lawyers are literally in court every day to defend the country’s people against such ills as police abuse and government-orchestrated property siezures.

Now we’re seeing the same thing again. When Nigerian democracy doesn’t work, the courts are the only place to turn. And turn they do. The lawsuit that mandates this vote on Yar’Adua is just the first of a flood of law suits now demanding that the Nigerian government transition into the hands of the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Even if the cabinet votes to keep Yar’Adua in power, the courts will be back to challenge them. You can’t go missing for two months without at least a few of Nigeria’s many lawyers noticing.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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