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Last Friday, a panel of Nigeria’s appeal court did itself credit when it ruled that Mr. Olagunsoye Oyinlola of the Peoples Democratic Party was a gubernatorial usurper in Osun State – and that Mr. Rauf Aregbesola of the Action Congress was the winner of the state’s 2007 governorship election.

Justice Clara Ogunbiyi led four other justices in dismissing Mr. Oyinlola from his perch and ordering that the man chosen by the state’s voters close to four years ago assume the reins of power.

The ruling – which came on the heels of similar verdicts in Edo and Ekiti, where PDP impostors were rusticated – bodes well for the image of the judiciary. In each case, the court’s courage in doing the right thing elicited widespread jubilation not only within the concerned states but also around the nation.

Nigerians, whether versed in the law or not, know it when the judiciary makes a sound call in electoral cases. We show it by trooping out to the streets to ululate, dance, shake hands or tipple a beer or two. By contrast, when the judiciary lends itself as an instrument for the perpetration of fraud or falsehood, Nigerians withdraw into shocked, funereal silence.

One must (dare) hope that the recent rulings promise the shape of things to come. For Nigeria’s history of electoral heists places a particularly grave burden on the judiciary. It falls to judges at all levels to demonstrate judicial sagacity and fierce integrity in the disposition of electoral cases.

Sadly, the record of the judiciary’s performance since the tag team of former President Olusegun Obasanjo and former INEC chairman Maurice Iwu encumbered the nation with a “do-or-die” rigfest has been – to put it generously – a mixed bag. Yes, in a smattering of cases, judges have displayed admirable rigor in voiding electoral verdicts based on manifest manipulation. Even so, in far too many cases – among them, the impunity that was the 2007 presidential election – the judiciary gave a dismal account of itself. Justices appeared in a haste to legitimize what most Nigerians knew to be purloined mandates.

As we celebrate the judiciary’s recent impressive verdicts, we ought to be chastened by one disturbing fact, namely, that those who steal political office as well as their abettors go unpunished. Or – to put it in starker language – they actually are richly rewarded. Let us illustrate with the case of Osun. For, three years and six months, Mr. Oyinlola and the PDP hijacked the resources of the state. The gubernatorial impostor and his associates were able to dispose of the state’s funds as they deemed fit. Meanwhile, the man the state’s voters wanted as their steward and the custodian of their affairs was locked out.

Usurpers like Oyinlola deserve stiff punishment. It’s hardly enough to order them to vacate from office. After all, the man had maintained himself for close to four years in an office he did not win legitimately. That should be regarded as the highest of crimes.

For a start, in order to deter the Oyinlolas of Nigerian politics, there ought to be a law requiring certified usurpers to refund all the salaries and allowances they collected during their period of usurpation. In addition, to further serve as a moral cum political sanction, their names should be expunged from the public record as holders of the office they occupied illicitly.

The larger scandal is that, even though a record number of elections have been nullified since Mr. Iwu’s 2007 general (s) elections, not a single electoral official has been fired. As a friend of mine asked me over the phone, does it mean that Nigerians regard rigged elections as “an act of God,” with no human culpability whatsoever?

Of course, rogue politicians in Nigeria have patented the ludicrous sentiment of ascribing their fraudulent mandates to “God’s doing.” Some, unable to give a coherent, credible account for their “victories,” resort to the nonsense that “only God gives power,” or that “all power comes from God.” Enlightened Nigerians, including the judiciary, must unite in exposing the profound illogicality and falsehood of such bugaboo. We must insist that voters, and voters alone, cast the votes that count in our election. If a candidate for an elective office loses the popular vote, but feels chosen by “God,” he or she should seek an appropriate ecclesiastical post.

Rigging is a man-made crime, with absolutely nothing to do with God – unless we have inanely expanded our idea of the attributes of divinity to include expertise in fraud. The rampancy of electoral malpractice in Nigeria is a serious indictment of electoral officials. In the most generous scenario, these officials are guilty of ineptitude and incompetence. And, in the worst of cases, they are guilty of colluding with nefarious politicians to thwart the legitimate choices of the electorate. Even if they were merely incompetent, they should have no place as workers in the nation’s electoral sector. More likely, however, these officials seek or accept inducement in exchange for entering the wrong scores. Their crimes – which verge on treason – should invite prosecution and harsh punishment.

At any rate, there’s no reason why men and women who superintended fraudulent polls should remain on the electoral commission’s payroll – and be permitted to oversee future elections. There’s no question that the current INEC chairman, Mr. Attahiru Mohammed Jega, has closed some of the commission’s huge credibility deficit. He’s done this by bringing a measure of his personal integrity to bear on its affairs. But he must go further. He should redeploy or fire the commission’s staff who played questionable roles in notoriously rigged elections, including the 2009 re-run governorship election in Ekiti.

Characters like Oyinlola should not only fade into political obscurity. Ideally, they as well as those who facilitated their ascension into unearned elective posts should be made to feel legal heat for their rigging misadventures.

Okey is at ([email protected])

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