Nigeria Politics


Goodluck Jonathan is under mounting pressure to state whether or not he will seek the nomination of the ruling People’s Democratic Party for forthcoming presidential polls. The decision on whether to seek re-election is a difficult one for Mr Jonathan, however, since this would break the party’s unwritten “zoning agreement”.

With presidential polls less than six months away, Nigerian politicians are starting to declare their candidacies for the top job. A conspicuous absence from the list–thus far–is the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan. The reason for President Jonathan’s reticence is clear: the unwritten agreement within the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that the presidency rotate every two terms between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south. This effectively rules out Mr Jonathan, a southerner, from the current race, as he inherited power following the death of the northern head of state, Umaru Yar’Adua, when he was still in his first term of office. However, Mr Jonathan does not have the bearing of a leader who is about to step aside after only a year simply because of a gentleman’s agreement that many Nigerians believe is outdated and undemocratic–although others argue that the arrangement has fostered political stability in a country with a history of geo-political distrust and conflicts, largely stirred by fears of ethnic domination. There is growing support for Mr Jonathan to break the zoning arrangement and seek re-election, particularly among politicians from his native Niger Delta region, which has long complained of political alienation despite being the source of the nation’s oil wealth. And on August 12th the PDP’s chairman, Okwesilieze Nwodo, stated that Goodluck Jonathan “had the right” to contest the January 2011 polls–but added that “this would not preclude anyone [else] in the party” from contesting the PDP primaries, due to be held in September or October.

Two rival candidates have already decided to do just that: a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar–who ran unsuccessfully for president as the opposition Action Congress candidate in the 2007 polls–and a former military leader, Ibrahim Babangida, have announced that they will seek the PDP nomination. Both are from the Muslim north, meaning they are well-positioned to win support from PDP traditionalists who believe that the “zoning agreement” must be upheld. However, they could also split this vote, and the Economist Intelligence Unit therefore continues to believe that the most likely scenario is that Mr Jonathan secures the PDP candidacy–aided by the very inability of the northern political establishment to agree on whom they wish to lead the party in the polls–and goes on to win the 2011 presidential election, benefiting from his rise in popularity since replacing Mr Yar’Adua, as well as the PDP’s formidable campaign machinery.

There are a number of very feasible alternative scenarios, however:

* Mr Jonathan may decide not to stand–an anonymous “presidency source” has already hinted that he may stand aside–or may not be chosen as the PDP candidate. Such is the power of the ruling party, and the weakness of the opposition, that whoever is selected would still be the favourite to win, assuming that any major splits within the party are avoided.

* The opposition may be able to provide a united front–or the northern PDP political establishment may manage to agree on its own candidate, and decide to quit the PDP and compete against Mr Jonathan. This would probably mean an extremely close presidential election and, therefore, an increased likelihood of political violence and electoral malpractice from all sides.

* The political acrimony may degenerate to such an extent that the military attempts to seize power. A coup cannot be ruled out–there have been numerous periods of military rule in Nigeria since independence–but popular support would not be forthcoming. Equally, the current situation, although unfortunate, is nowhere near as desperate as the systemic breakdowns that led to previous coups, meaning that this remains a low-probability scenario.

What does seem certain, however, is that the Nigerian political scene will face an extremely volatile and possibly even bloody period as popular disillusionment with the political elite combines with discontent over high levels of poverty, as well as ethnic and religious divisions.
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