ABUJA, June 14 (Reuters) The Nigerian Supreme Court ruled today that the newly inaugurated governor of southeastern Anambra state should step down because the April election that brought him to power was illegal.
The ruling that Andy Uba should hand back power in Anambra to his predecessor Peter Obi is a political bombshell in Nigeria because Uba was one of the closest and most powerful allies of former President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Many Nigerians suspect Obasanjo, who handed over the presidency to Umaru Yar'Adua on May 29, of seeking to interfere in public affairs from retirement. But the removal of Uba is a strong indication that Obasanjo's influence is waning.
Obi, who belongs to an opposition party, had won the 2003 governorship elections in Anambra but the ruling party's candidate was declared the winner after massive electoral fraud in the state.
Obi fought a three-year legal battle to win back his mandate and finally assumed office in March 2006.
The Supreme Court argued that under the constitution, a state governor's tenure should last four years, therefore Obi should stay in power until March 2010.
''The Independent National Electoral Commission was wrong to have conducted elections to fill a non-existent governorship (vacancy) in Anambra state,'' said Justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu, delivering a unanimous ruling by seven Supreme Court judges.
They ordered Uba to vacate office immediately and in Awka, the Anambra state capital, some of Uba's staff were seen leaving government headquarters while Obi's supporters cheered and danced in the street.
''The last election was a fraud and we never wanted Uba,'' said clothes saleswoman Tina Okoye, who was among those celebrating.
Uba was one of the most influential figures in the Obasanjo administration. For most of his tenure, Obasanjo did not appoint an oil minister but instead kept the portfolio to himself, and industry insiders said they had to go through Uba to reach Obasanjo and clinch sensitive deals.
The governorship of his native Anambra was widely seen as a reward for Uba's loyalty, and after he was sworn in on May 29 dozens of businesses took out full-page adverts in the newspapers to congratulate him.
Governors are powerful figures in Nigeria, with discretionary powers over millions of dollars of public funds and immunity from prosecution while in office.
But Uba's rise to power in Anambra was disputed on several fronts. As well as Obi's legal challenge, the man who had been declared winner of the 2003 poll instead of Obi was also in court arguing that the April 2007 election was invalid because he had been illegally disqualified from contesting.
In addition, election monitors reported that Anambra was one of the states worst affected by vote-rigging in April.
This was a problem in many of the 36 states, according to international observers who condemned the elections as ''not credible''. A Reuters witness in Anambra said there was no voting at all in many areas. Official results gave Uba a landslide victory.
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