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Goodluck, but is it good night for Nigeria’s president?

Goodluck, but is it good night for Nigeria’s president?

A change in power could be coming to Nigeria

Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan. (PA)

The People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has governed Nigeria uninterrupted since the end of military rule 15 years ago. In four successive polls the PDP has returned commanding victories in presidential, legislative and gubernatorial elections. Small parties have had successes, returning governors and parliamentarians, but have been unable to match the PDP’s nationwide appeal. Now, however, there is plenty to suggest that times are changing.

Nigeria is set to hold a general election in early 2015 at which not just the presidency will be up for grabs, but also the state governors and seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. It is significant then that, for the first time since the people sent Olusegun Obasanjo to the presidential palace in 1999, the PDP faces an opponent capable of success across this vast country, north to south, east to west. In February 2013, Nigeria’s four largest opposition parties merged to form the All Progressives Congress (APC), with the purpose of ending the PDP’s national domination at next year’s elections. Importantly, the two largest parties – the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) – brought with them considerable regional influence from both south and north. The ACN has long been popular and had electoral successes in the country’s southwest, most notably in the commercial capital, Lagos. The CPC has support in the north in large part because it is headed by Muhammadu Buhari, a former general who led Nigeria in the mid-1980s and has grassroots popularity among the country’s Muslims.

PDP divisions threaten its grip on power

The PDP is at war with itself and has been shedding members to the APC at an alarming rate. This can only add to the threat a unified opposition poses to the ruling party. At the heart of this internal conflict is the widely-held perception that President Goodluck Jonathan (pictured) intends to stand as the PDP’s candidate for Nigeria’s top job. In the eyes of his opponents Jonathan plans to violate the unspoken pact that the PDP should alternate presidential power between north and south. It is, these figures argue, the turn of a northerner to take the keys to State House. The APC has benefitted from this disintegration in PDP unity. In recent months five governors, 11 senators and nearly 40 members of the House of Representatives have defected to the opposition. The result is that the numerical balance of power between the parties in the various seats of government is now much more even. Jonathan has gone to the courts in a bid to make the defectors vacate their seats and re-stand under their new party banner. Unsurprisingly, the APC’s new representatives are resisting this and ill-tempered disputes are ongoing around the country.

It does appear that Jonathan is preparing to fight for the presidency and the removal of his most vocal enemies presumably makes securing the PDP candidacy easier. Despite this, his administration has been wounded in recent months by two serious embarrassments. In December 2013 Obasanjo, the first PDP president and Jonathan’s former mentor, published an 18-page open letter in which, warning his successor not to seek re-election, he accused him inter alia of serious failures in the struggles against both corruption and Boko Haram.

The Jonathan administration has also been damaged by allegations levelled by Lamido Sanusi, the respected central bank governor. He claims that mismanagement by Nigeria’s state oil company led to a failure to account for up to $20 billion intended for the treasury between January 2012 and July 2013. These criticisms carry extra barbs because the oil minister, Diezani Alison-Madueke, is one of Jonathan’s most loyal supporters. The president has reacted to these reproaches in a heavy-handed manner, suspending Sanusi and describing Obasanjo’s complaint as ‘a threat to national security’.

So, there are concrete reasons why investors should take seriously the possibility of a Nigeria not controlled by the PDP following the next year’s elections. That said, it is also wise to retain a healthy scepticism as to the APC’s chances of triumphing.

First, let us consider the PDP. The party has not yet formally decided upon a presidential candidate. It is possible that Jonathan will not stand – whether through choice is another matter – or that he will be able to unite the northern and southern factions in support for him seeking another term. Indeed, last month he replaced 12 ministers with officials mainly from the north in a move widely interpreted as a means of placating opponents within his party. This more conciliatory approach was also in evidence recently when the PDP chairman publicly spoke of the party’s wish to win back the members it has lost to the APC. In fact, it appears that this open-armed offer has already yielded results as the PDP has welcomed a stream of defectors from the APC during recent weeks.

The opposition is far from united

Second, it is not yet clear what, besides antipathy towards the Jonathan government, unites the APC. Indeed, an inability to find common ground and preserve intra-party discipline has lent the deathblow to previous efforts to combine regional organisations into a nationwide force capable of bringing down the PDP. This must be taken into account on this occasion too. While the APC is certainly the most credible threat to PDP hegemony since 1999, the famed egos of its strongmen could be an impediment to the maintenance of unity. The subject of whether the leaders of the CPC and ACN – Buhari and former Lagos governor Bola Ahmed Tinubu respectively – would be able to suppress their personalities and interests for the good of the APC was already treated with some doubt before the heavyweight defections from the PDP. The arrival of figures such as former vice president Atiku Abubakar and Rivers State governor Rotimi Amaechi, while undeniably arming the APC with some serious firepower, can only add to the capacity for fireworks at the party’s summit. Indeed, observers have already begun to report on the annoyance felt by the APC’s older hands at the presumption of ex-PDP newcomers assuming it is they who should take control of the party in their particular states.

Turbulent times lie ahead

Nigerian politics has entered what will inevitably be a turbulent 12 months – even by its own standards. The months leading up to elections are always witness to horse-trading between influential factions and interests, but we can expect it to be especially energetic and tumultuous ahead of next year’s poll. This forecast rests on a number of factors, which include the continuing cohesion of the APC, the unusually vigorous PDP infighting and – should the typical pre-election violence flare up in the oil-rich Delta Region – an armed threat on two fronts. By no means do we envisage a radical reconfiguration of the manner in which and by whom Nigeria is ruled (although there will inevitably be individual winners and losers). Indeed, recent history suggests that the Nigerian elite will use the next year to achieve compromise and will then abide by the election results. However, the situation in the country is more volatile and fractious than at any other time in the last 15 years and it is going to require all of Goodluck Jonathan's political street-smarts to keep the show on the road.


Published: 12th March 2014