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Chronicling Post-Election Disputes In Nigeria

Every outcome of an election in Nigeria has been subject to dispute even way back into fifties. In this report, AHURAKA YUSUF ISAH serially examined various legal dispute brought against the elections of either the Prime Minister or President by the opposition and analyses why such suits or actions failed.


In 1952, elections were held in the Western, Eastern and Northern regions. Dr Nnamdi Azikwe relocated from Western region to the Eastern Region and was elected to the position of Chief Minister. As a result of the AG victory, Awolowo formed the first elected government in the Western Region and became the Leader of Government Business and Minister for Local Government in 1952. Sir Ahmadu Bello also won a seat in the Northern House of Assembly, and became a member of the regional executive council as minister of works. He was successfully minister of Works, of Local Government, and of Community Development in the Northern Region.


In 1954, a countrywide election was held to usher in Dr Nnamdi Azikwe, Chief Obafemi Awolowo and Sir Ahmadu Bello as Premiers of the Eastern, Western and Northern Regions respectively.


On December 12, 1959, a federal elections into the federal House of Representatives was conducted to usher in the country’s independence on October 1, 1960. While Azikiwe and Awolowo relinquished their premiership to Michel Opara and S.L.Akintola respectively to go to the federal level in Lagos, their counterpart in the north, the Sardauna of Sokoto did not leave, thus leaving the federal level to his deputy, Alhaji Abubakar Tafawa Balewa. Both Awolowo and Azikwe took part in this federal election with their desire to become the first prime minister of an independent Nigeria.

The result showed that out of a total 7,628,847 votes cast, voter turnout of 79.5%, Action Group had 1,992,364 (26.1%) and won 73 out of a total 312 seats. NPC got 1,922,179 (25.2%) votes but won 134 seats out of the 312 seats. NCNC won 89 seats as well. NPC formed a coalition with five other parties and two independents, holding a total of 148 seats.

However, the NPC and the NCNC formed a coalition government in which Balewa became Prime Minister of the independent Nigeria while Azikiwe became the Governor-General. Awolowo settled for the position of Leader of Opposition in the Federal House of Representatives while the deputy leader of the Action Group, Chief SL Akintola, remained premier of the Western Region.

Chief Awolowo campaigned vigorously in this election. He toured all the four corners of the country in an helicopter and for the first time election campaigns were reluctantly allowed in the far northern part of the country whose populace was then under tight control of the Emirs. He dropped leaflets even on top of emirs’ palaces. At the end of the elections, he couldn’t achieve his ambition because NPC won the highest number of seats since more than half of the seats in the House of Representatives was allocated to the north. Yet, Awolowo’s AG won the highest numbe for r of votes in the country.

Perhaps, with little or absence of avenues to ventilate his grievances, Awolowo took a recourse to ‘’self-help’’. No Election Petition Tribunal was constituted to adjudicate on election disputes, just as the number of seats allocated to the north which was under the grip of the NPC was hurtful and humiliating for Awolowo who strongly believe had the best plans and programmes for accelerated transformation and development of the country.

Besides, excluded from National government, the position of Awolowo and his party became increasingly precarious. Some politicians, mostly of Akintola’s group, angered at their exclusion from power, formed a break-away party, the Nigerian National Democratic Party (NNDP), under Akintola. Constitutional crisis in the region led the federal parliament to declare a state of emergency in the west, the elected Western Regional Assembly was thus suspended, only to be reconstituted after new elections that brought the NNDP in control.

On October 1, 1962, Prime Minister Balewa in a nation-wide broadcast told the nation that his government had been aware for some time of violent intentions of certain politicians to forcefully overthrow the legitimate government in Nigeria, and that they had been undergoing military training abroad. On October 26, the ban on public meetings and processions was extended to cover the whole of Western Nigeria.

On November 2, 1962, Awolowo was dragged to court on thirty three count charges (including treason) in the High Court in Lagos before Justice George Sodeinde Sowemimo. Others standing trial with Awolowo included Anthony Enahoro, Sam Ikoku, Ayo Adebanjo, Lateef Jakande, Alfred Rewane, J.S. Tarka, Josiah Olawoyin, Dr. Oladipo Maja, Bisi Onabanjo, James Aluko, etc) Trial began November 12, 1962. And on September 11, 1963, Awolowo was pronounced guilty of all charges and jailed for 10 years.

The appeal of Obafemi Awolowo and 17 others came before the Supreme Court with Adetokunbo Adernola presiding and empanelled with Lionel Brett, J.I.C. Taylor, Vahe Bairamian and Louis Mbanefo.

According to Trevor Clark, the Prime Minister had shown some of the impounded firearms to Adetokunbo Ademola to convince him that the leadership of the Action Group had indeed master minded a plan to overthrow the central government through non-constitutional means. When the appeal in the case eventually came up before the Supreme Court, it was wholly dismissed.


On December 30, 1964, elections were held in the Northern Region, in many parts of the West and in some parts of the Mid West. They were completely boycotted in the East. The results that were eventually released showed that the N.N.A. had won 198 seats and the U.P.G.A only 40 seats. Many people called for the cancellation of the elections and urged President Nnamdi Azikiwe to assume executive powers, nominate a caretaker government under a Prime Minister of his choice and later hold a new and more credible election.

Tafawa Balewa on the other hand, strongly believed that the results of the elections were truly reflective of the political preference of the majority of Nigerians. On January 1, 1965, the President informed the Prime Minister that the elections were “unsatisfactory in view of the violations of freedom of recent weeks. The President believed that the results of the elections could not be relied upon in calling up a new Parliament and that he had no intention of appointing Tafawa Balewa or any person to form a government. Azikiwe further said he would prefer to resign as President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria rather than to accept the results of the elections. The Prime Minister responded that he was still the Prime Minister until a new one was appointed within the provisions of the Constitution.

‘He believed that the clear majority votes of the NNA votes gave the President no alternative other than to reappoint him. He concluded that, if the President was not prepared to carry out the duty of his office, he should resign. It was in the thick of this national crisis that the CJN Adetokunbo Ademola became involved in finding a workable solution to the impasse.

The Prime Minister confided in Adetokunbo Ademola his intention to appoint Sir Kofo Abayomi to succeed Azikjwe as President. Adetolcunbo Ademola, however, disabused his mind and assured him that Nnamdi Azikiwe would not resign. The President had wanted to call in the Armed Forces and the Police to strengthen his bargaining position vis a vis the Prime Minister’s. At a joint meeting with Major-General Welby-Everard, Commodore J.R.A. Wey and Mr. Orok Edet, the Inspector General of Police, the President sought to secure the allegiance and loyalty of the Forces. It was, however, at this stage that he called for legal advice as to which office the Forces should pledge their loyalty. It would seem that the constitutional interpretation that was provided by Mr. Justice Lionel Brett of the Supreme Court was with the fore knowledge and concurrence of CJN Adetokunbo Ademola. It was submitted that the Constitution gave the Federal Parliament sole powers to legislate for the Forces. The Army and Navy Acts laid down general control to be wielded by the Army Council and the Navy Board. They were both responsible to the Minister of Defense. The operational control of the Forces was said to be by the commanders who were under the policy direction of the cabinet. With respect to the maintenance of public safety and order, the direction was to come from the Prime Minister.

This legal position emphasized the figurehead position of the President who had no operational control or command over the Forces. The position of the law on the matter was conveyed to the President on Sunday 3 January 1965 by CJN Adetokunbo Ademola and Louis Mbanefo.

As a result of massive boycott of the 1964 general elections in some parts of Western, Midwestern and Eastern regions, the elections were not held until March 18, 1965. It was an election that took the country to the brink and even kick-started the crisis that eventually snowballed into the 30-month Nigeria/Biafra war.

Given that the election was reportedly marked by high incidence of manipulation and violence, the crisis surrounding the disputed result was among the reasons adduced by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu for toppling Balewa’s government. The crisis started in the Western region leading to wanton destruction of lives and property in what came to be known as the ‘wild wild West’ and ‘operation we-tie.’ The country did not recover from the mayhem and it became one of the reasons some young military hot-heads cited for staging the first coup of January 15, 1966, which in turn led to the July 1966 counter coup, further instability and massive killings in the North and eventually the civil war when the Eastern Region seceded to form the Republic of biafra. The zenith of the crises was the 30-month civil war of 1967-70 during which about two million lives were wasted.

1979, 1983 & 1993 GENERAL ELECTIONS

After the civil war, the General Yakubu Gowon military government promised to hand-over to civilians in 1976. However, in 1975 he said the transition to civil rule was no longer feasible. The comment led to the General Murtala Mohammed coup. Murtala was killed about six months later on February 13, 1976 and his successor, General Olusegun Obasanjo promised to continue with the 1979 hand-over date. Upon the publishing of the 1979 draft constitution by the Constituent Assembly, the Olusegun Obasanjo regime lifted the ban on politics on September 21, 1978. It was a move that re-launched most First Republic politicians into the political scene.

The parties that participated in that election were the National Party of Nigeria, NPN; Unity Party of Nigeria (UPN); Nigerian Peoples Party (NPP); Great Nigeria Peoples Party (GNPP); Nigeria Advanced Party (NAP); and Peoples Redemption Party (PRP). Presidential candidates that contested were Alhaji Shehu Shagari of NPN, Azikiwe of NPP, Awolowo of UPN, Aminu Kanu of PRP and Adamu Waziri of GNPP.

At the end of the election that was held on August 11, 1979, Shagari had 5,668,857 votes representing 33% of the total votes. Awolowo of the UPN scored 4,916,651 votes which was 29.18% of the total votes, while NPP’s Azikiwe scored 2,822, 523 votes representing 16.75%. PRP’s 1,732, 11 was 10.28% of the general votes while GNPP had 1,686, 489 which was 10.02% of the votes. The election result was disputed because of the argument that NPN did not meet the constitutional specification that the winner should have not only the majority of votes, but at least 25% of votes cast in two-third of the 19 states. Even though the controversy over the outcome of the polls was resolved by the Supreme Court, what constituted two-third of 19 states as stated in that judgement was still in dispute.

Awolowo Vs Shagari

This is an Election petition where the Court was called upon to interpret Section 34 A (i) (ii) of Electoral Decree No 73 of 1977. Awolowo contested the declaration of Shagari as President of Nigeria on the grounds that Section 34 A (i) (c)(ii) of the Electoral Decree had not been satisfied by winning two thirds of all the states of the federation.

On September 26, 1979, the then CJN, Justice Atanda Fatayi-Williams, flanked by Justices Ayo Gabriel Irikefe, Mohammed Bello, Chukwunweike Idigbe, Andrews Otutu Obaseki, Kayode Eso (dissented) and Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, presided and delivered lead judgment in the 1979 presidential election petition brought by Chief Obafemi Awolowo against Alhaji Shehu Shagari.

According to the results announced on 16th August, 1979 by the Federal Electoral commission (FEDECO), Shehu Shagari scored 5, 688, 857 votes nation-wide whilst Obafemi Awolowo had 4, 916, 651 votes.

Awolowo did not dispute these figures but rather contended that Shagari’s scores were in-sufficient, because the law required a returned candidate must fulfil two conditions simultaneously; namely to have the highest number of votes, which Shagari had, but also have “…not less than one quarter of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two thirds of all the (19) states within the federation,” – which Shagari did not have, according to Awolowo.

By the declared results agreed, Shehu Shagari got 25% of the votes cast in twelve (12) states; namely: Bauchi, Bendel, Borno, Cross River, Gongola, Kaduna, Kwara, Niger, Plateau, Rivers and Sokoto. The 13th state was the issue. It was Kano state – where Shagari scored 243,423 votes, equivalent to 19.4% of the 1,220,763 votes cast in total.

On those agreed facts, Awolowo prayed the Nigerian Supreme Court to declare as follows:- that although Shagari received 5,688,857 nationwide at the said election, Shagari still had less than 25% of the votes cast at the election in each of at least two thirds of all (19) states in the federation, and, the Election Tribunal was wrong to declare, based on the result in Kano State, that “…. 25% of two-thirds of the votes in Kano State is 203, 460.5 votes….,” and, therefore: “The Supreme Court should now determine that the said Alhaji Shehu Shagari was not duly elected or returned and that his election or return was void.”

Awolowo argued that the phrase “…in each of at least two thirds of all the states within the federation.” means thirteen (13) states because there is nothing either in the Electoral Decree of 1977 or the Electoral (Amendment) Decree of 1978 authorizing fractionalization of a state for the purpose of determining two thirds of its votes.

Further, he contended that insofar as fractionalization of a state in this context is un-lawful, the phrase should instead be interpreted to mean that a candidate must score 25% of the votes in at least 13 out of the then 19 states in Nigeria.

It is wrong logic to determine two thirds of the votes in Kano by dividing the 1,220,763 total votes cast in Kano by two-thirds to arrive at 813, 842, and then declare Shagari’s own votes of 243,423 in Kano as greater than 25% of the total votes cast in Kano, since that will be tantamount to Shagari’s return as validly elected on the basis of one-sixth of the total votes in Kano State, contrary to law, Awolowo argued.

“The phrase ‘………in each of at least two thirds of all the states within the federation’ does not mean ‘in each of at least two thirds of all the votes within the federation’ “, Awolowo averred, “because states are not equivalent to votes in that phrase by any literal interpretation”.

Shagari disagreed and contrarily argued that the word “states” indeed means votes within that phrase. Shagari submitted that his own total score of 243,423 in Kano state should therefore be held constant, whilst scaling down the total votes of 1,220,763 cast in all of Kano state by one third, to thereafter calculate and approve that he indeed scored 25% of the votes in Kano State.

After hearing these arguments, Chief Justice Fatai Williams held that where a provision of statute is capable of multiple valid interpretations, the Court is at liberty to pick and choose among which interpretation to adopt….

‘’Be that as it may, and for reasons, which we have highlighted in this judgement, we see no reason for disturbing the findings and conclusions of the Tribunal. The appeal therefore fails and it is dismissed. The decision of the Tribunal is affirmed’’, Justice Williams held.


On August 6, 1983, Presidential elections were held in Nigeria, which the opposition dismissed as massively rigged for the ruling NPN, and indeed a walk over. President Shagari trounced his main opponents, Awolowo (UPN) and Azikiwe (NPP) with a very wide margin that the NPN dubbed its victory as ‘moon slide.’

While NPN (Shehu Shagari) scored 12,081,471 (47.5%); UPN (Obafemi Awolowo) 7,907,209 (31.2%); NPP (Nnamdi Azikiwe)-3,557,113 (14.0%); PRP (per Khalifa Hassan Yusuf) -968,974 (3.8%); GNPP (per Ibrahim Waziri) -643,806 (2.5%) and NAP (per Tunji Braithwaite) – 271,524 (1.0%); out of the total votes of 25,430,097.

By the time the gubernatorial elections were held on August 13, 1983, the results announced triggered violence in some states leading to the killing of over 70 people and wanton destructions of property. The violence has been mostly limited to 2 of Nigeria’s 19 states, Oyo and Ondo, traditionally strong hold of the Unity Party of Nigeria.

In Oyo state, the then police commissioner, Umaru Omolowo, said that 33 people had been killed in Oyo, 12 as the result of police efforts to quell disturbances. At least 40 people were said to have been killed in Ondo, including 2 National Party congressional candidates who were reportedly set on fire by an angry mob.

To prevent further violence, the Federal Electoral Commission postponed scheduled senatorial elections in Ondo state indefinitely and rescheduled Oyo state’s senatorial elections for Sept. 10. According to Alhaji Shehu Musa, the then secretary of the Government, the situation in Ondo remains tense, while in Oyo ‘’there is an uneasy calm.’’ NPN had 13 governors out of the 19 states of the Federation.

However, by December 31, 1983, the military led by General Muhammadu Buhari seized power again. Buhari emerged Head of State and in another coup, General Ibrahim Gbadamosi Babangida overthrew him and became Nigeria’s first military President. His planned transition to democracy appeared long.


On June 23, 1993 when ex-President General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida announced the annulment of the June 12, 1993 Presidential election, highly believed to have been won by the late Alhaji Moshood K, Abiola, he blamed the judiciary for the crisis leading to his decision.

‘’It must be acknowledged that the performance of the judiciary on this occasion was less than satisfactory. The judiciary has been the bastion of the hopes and liberties of our citizens. Therefore, when it became clear that the courts had become intimidated and subjected to the manipulation of the political process, and vested interests, then the entire political system was in clear dangers. This administration could not continue to watch the various high courts carry on their long drawn out processes and contradictory decisions while the nation slides into chaos. It was under this circumstance that the National Defence and Security Council decided that it is in the supreme interest of law and order, political stability and peace that the presidential election be annulled’’, Babangida stated.

The drama began on June 11, 1993 when Justice Bassey Ikpeme, the “midnight judge” made a ruling a few hours to the casting of ballot to stop the conduct of the election. To the applause of the public, Professor Humphrey Nwosu and the electoral body disregarded the ruling and went ahead with the election because Section 19 of Decree No. 13 of 1993 ousted the jurisdiction of the court in the matter. While election results were been announced, the then Chief Judge FCT High Court, Justice Dahiru Saleh granted an order stopping further announcement of the election results on June12; the same Justice Saleh followed with another declaring the election ‘null and void’.

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