Nigeria politics: North and south


Goodluck Jonathan has announced that he will after all stand in next January’s presidential polls. While Mr Jonathan has seen his popularity rise in his brief period in power this is a high-risk strategy which could feasibly lead to the break-up of the ruling party.

Nigeria’s incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan, confirmed on September 15th that he would contest the next presidential polls, to be held in January 2011. Mr Jonathan made the announcement, on his Facebook page, on the same day that a potential rival, Ibrahim Babangida–a former military ruler–launched his campaign in a more traditional manner, with a public rally.

In one sense Mr Jonathan’s declaration does not come as a great surprise. Since inheriting the presidency on the death of the incumbent, Umaru Yar’Adua, in May 2010, Mr Jonathan has worked hard to drive forward Nigeria’s stalled reform programme and assert his own authority, while policy announcements such as pledges to tackle the country’s chronic power shortages and establish a sovereign wealth fund have seen his popularity rise. What is more, in early September Mr Jonathan replaced the leaders of Nigeria’s security forces. While not unusual in itself, the timing of the move–announced a day after the release of the election timetable–suggests that it is an attempt by the president to demonstrate that he is in full control of his administration in a country where people see the ability of civilian leaders to sack military chiefs as evidence of political strength.

However, this is not to say that Mr Jonathan faces a clear run at the presidency–or even the nomination of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Under an unwritten arrangement within the PDP, the presidency is supposed to rotate every two terms between the north and the south. Mr Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, was serving his first term when he died, and Mr Jonathan is a southern Christian. There is thus pressure from within the party for the 2011 presidential candidate to be from the north. Mr Babangida is such a candidate, as is a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, who has also formally announced his candidacy. Both men are also weighty politicians with considerable political experience, meaning that Mr Jonathan’s announcement is a potentially high-risk move. The PDP, which has won every presidential election since the beginning of the Fourth Republic in 1999 and controls two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states, is the clear favourite in next year’s elections, whoever its presidential candidate is–provided that it remains unified. Should the party break apart, or should some prominent northern members leave to join an opposition grouping, the 2011 elections will become too close to call. Indeed, this consideration may have played a part in the timing of Mr Jonathan’s announcement: he has been under pressure to declare his intentions for some time, but may have delayed doing so in the hope of making it difficult for his prominent northern opponents to leave the PDP and take up the ticket of another party.

The Economist Intelligence Unit’s central scenario is that Mr Jonathan will secure the PDP candidacy–aided by the inability of the northern political establishment to agree on whom they wish to lead the party in the polls–and go 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. However, it is not inconceivable that the PDP will break apart over the issue. This could prove beneficial for Nigerian democracy in the longer term, since the country has long lacked a credible opposition to the PDP. In the short term, however, it could prove highly destabilising, since the tighter the election, the more likely there is to be significant malpractice and violence.
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