By Richard Akinnola
Anticipation cradled the nation in its hands. It was barely five days to the inauguration of a democratically-elected government after a period of military interregnum.
Invitations had been extended to Heads of various governments to grace the occasion. Would the court scuttle all these arrangements? Would there be an extension of military rule or a caretaker government in the event that the Supreme court invalidated Shehu Shagari’s election?
That was the scenario on September 26, 1979 when the seven Supreme court justices filed into the filled courtroom.
Let by the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Atanda Fatai-Williams, others were Justices Ayo Irikefe, Chukwuweike Idigbe, Mohammed Bello, Andrews Otutu Obaseki, Kayode Eso and Muhammadu Lawal Uwais.
It was the case of Chief Obafemi Awolowo v. Alhaji Shehu Shagari over the disputed 1979 presidential election.
The election held on August 11, 1979 and five candidates contested. They were Chief Obafemi Awolowo(UPN), Alhaji Shehu Shagari (NPN), Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe (NPP), Mallam Aminu Kano (PRP) and Alhaji Waziri Ibrahim (GNPP).
After the election, the FEDECO Chief Returning Officer, Mr F. Menkiti declared Shagari as the winner, having secured 5,688,857 votes, while his closest rival, Awolowo scored 4,916,651 votes.
T.he FEDECO also declared that Shagari had secured 25% of votes cast in two-thirds of thirteen states. But Awo contended that though Shagari secured the largest number of votes cast but that he didn’t meet the requirements of spread as two-thirds of 19 states was not 13. At that time, Nigeria had 19 states. In political arithmetic, was two thirds of 19 states 13 or twelve two-thirds?
At the lower tribunal, counsel to Shagari, Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN, had propounded the strange political arithmetic, to the effect that two-thirds of 19 was twelve two-thirds and not 13, a position Awo rejected.
At the tribunal through to the Supreme court, Awo was represented by a battery of lawyers led by Chief G.O.K. Ajayi and Abraham Adesanya. At a time, Awo himself, donned his wig and gown to be part of the legal team.
Awo had contended that “I know that l did not score more than 25% of the votes cast in more than six states. But l insist that two-thirds of 19 is 13 and l will say that two-thirds of of 20 is 14 and l will say that two-thirds of 21 is 14…it is correct to state that the First respondent scored 25% of the votes cast in 12 states but not in 13 states as provided by section 34a(1)(c)(ii) of the Electoral (amendment) Decree of 1978”.
It provided that for you to be validly elected under this law, apart from securing the largest number of votes, you must also secure one-third of the valid votes in two-thirds of the 19 states.
On September 10, 1979, the presidential election tribunal dismissed the petition and alligned with the submission of Chief Akinjide to the effect that two-thirds of 19 states was twelve two-thirds and not 13.
At the Supreme court, the main issue for determination was the issue of what constituted two-thirds of 19 states? Could two-thirds of 19 be 13 or twelve two-thirds? Can a state be fractionalised for the purpose of this law?
This was what engaged the legal minds of the seven justices of the Supreme court as they filed into the court on September 26, 1979.
Shagari had scored 25% in 12 states – Bauchi, Bendel, Borno, Cross River, Gongola, Kaduna, Kwara, Niger, Plateau, Rivers and Sokoto. The contentious state regarding 25% was Kano where Shagari scored 19.4% of the total votes cast.
In its judgment of six to one, the Supreme court agreed with Chief Akinjide’s submission that two-thirds of 19 was twelve two-thirds, a position which Justice Kayode Eso disagreed with his minority judgment.
According to Eso, two third of 19 was 13 and not 12 2/3.!
Adieu, Chief Richard Akinjide.
(Being a tribute to Chief Richard Akinjide, SAN who passed earlier todayon ).