- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2007

ABUJA, Nigeria — Nigeria’s Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the country’s vice president, who has broken with the president and his powerful party, should be allowed to run for president, throwing the race into disarray only days before the vote.

The decision in favor of Vice President Atiku Abubakar came after violence and fraud charges during weekend state elections underlined questions about the state of democracy in Africa’s most populous country.

“I have always said I will run,” Mr. Abubakar told reporters. The electoral commission “had always said they are prepared to include my name any time they receive the judgment of the Supreme Court.”

European Union monitors reported numerous problems with the weekend vote for state and local officials, and the White House issued a statement urging Nigerian officials to work hard to run an honest presidential election.

Saturday’s presidential election should set up the country’s first handover of power between elected civilians since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. But observers warned that Nigeria’s democratic experiment could be imperiled if its 62 million voters see the balloting as tainted.

Judge Umaru Katsina Alu, reading a unanimous judgment from the seven-judge panel, struck down an earlier appeals court decision that said the electoral commission had the right to vet and disqualify candidates from the race.

The commission had barred Mr. Abubakar after an executive panel established by President Olusegun Obasanjo said the vice president had stolen government funds. Mr. Abubakar denies the charges.

Electoral officials weren’t available for comment. They have said that 61 million ballots have been printed, but that unspecified provisions had been made in the event Mr. Abubakar should rejoin the field.

Mr. Abubakar has been clashing with Mr. Obasanjo since he helped quash a drive last year by the president’s supporters to amend the constitution and allow a third elected term for Mr. Obasanjo.

Mr. Abuba- kar bolted from Mr. Obasanjo’s powerful party to run for president as an opposition candidate. Umaru Yar’Adua, a member of Mr. Obasanjo’s party, is seen as the front-runner in the race.

Mr. Obasanjo, a former military ruler, won a 1999 election that ended 15 years of near-constant military rule and decades of coups d’etat that overturned civilian administrations. His 2003 re-election was marred by violence and widespread accusations of rigging.

Similar accusations of voting irregularities and clashes were reported after Saturday’s elections for state governors and legislators.

Mr. Obasanjo’s party appeared to take a commanding lead in early returns released yesterday, winning 21 of 36 governorships, with six states going to various opposition parties. Results from seven other races had not been reported.

Elections in Imo and Enugu states will have to be held again, after massive irregularities left the results “inconclusive,” the electoral commission said.

Authorities reported that at least 21persons died during the vote.

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