Q&A: Why Nigeria’s presidential primaries matter

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Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan will contest April’s election despite a challenge to his nomination from within his own party at the oil-rich African country’s American-style presidential primaries.

Former vice president Atiku Abubakar was put forward by a bloc of leaders from Nigeria’s influential Northern Political Leaders Forum, which announced in September that it would name someone to take on Jonathan in the primaries for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Abubakar served as vice president under Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 until 2007.

However the race for Nigeria’s highest office is weighed down by numerous issues, from ethnic and regional politics, to government corruption and security.

Why do the presidential primaries matter?

Nigeria’s primaries decide who will go forward to challenge for the leadership of Africa’s most populous country and one of the world’s major oil producers. The West African country is one of the major influences in the region.

This year’s convention was particularly significant because of the two main candidates mentioned above. President Jonathan is from the Niger Delta in the Christian-dominated south, while Abubakar is from the majority Muslim north.

Problems line up for Nigerian election

Since a return to democracy from military rule in 1999, there has been an unofficial policy within the dominant PDP of rotating the presidency between the country’s regions. The first eight years went to the southwest, the next eight were meant for the north, with the eight years after that intended to go the southeast.

However, the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua — who was from the north — last year changed all that. Vice president Jonathan became acting president and later actual president, before he declared his intention to run in 2011, therefore cutting short this “gentleman’s agreement.”

The north is the traditional powerbase in Nigeria and many of the big northern players are bitterly resentful at what they see as a hijacking of their turn at the presidency. As a result they have put forward Abubakar as their “consensus candidate” to oppose Jonathan.

How do they work?

Delegations from each of Nigeria’s 36 states will meet in the capital, Abuja, for a national convention on January 13, when they will vote for their preferred candidate. The PDP controls 26 states and has a majority in both houses of parliament.

At the convention, each state is called up alphabetically and its delegates vote in what is usually a secret ballot. A simple majority wins.

Is the power-sharing agreement under threat?

The power-sharing agreement is viewed by many as important because it is the only system in Nigeria’s 50-year history that has brought about a transition from one democratically elected civilian president to another — however flawed that transition. The concern now is that in a country with around 250 different ethnic groups, regional, ethnic, economic, and religious concerns will come to the fore.

However opponents of the agreement argue that it is undemocratic and does not take into account the best person for the job at a time when Nigeria is struggling with numerous crises.

Was Jonathan the favorite to win the PDP nomination?

Yes. Though there are fears his victory could increase resentment in the north where his support on the ground appears limited, though some northern governors may align with him if he wins in the primaries.

Others believe a split in the PDP, the most dominant of Nigeria’s political parties, is possible as supporters of each candidate leave the party to support their own man. This would have serious consequences for such a vast, diverse country ruled by what is basically a one-party state — despite recent inroads made by smaller opposition parties. For instance, depending how serious the split, noone is sure how a legitimate and nationally-supported president could be voted into power in a country where the last elections in 2007 were widely regarded as the most fraudulent in Nigeria’s history.

President Yar’Adua was seen by many to have been put into power not by public vote but by his predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo. However Attahiru Jega, the new and widely respected chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, has promised a free and fair vote come April.

But other analysts believe a split which undermines the very existence of the PDP is unlikely. What is more likely is spurned candidates will join another party, according to Adam Higazi, Research Fellow in African Studies at the University of Cambridge.

“At state level in Nigeria this is already happening,” he said. “Lots of gubernatorial aspirants who haven’t won the PDP nomination have joined other parties from the huge array available in Nigeria.” However he warned that the domination of the PDP is such that these opposition parties would need to form some kind of alliance to mount a sustained challenge for power. His colleague James Tsaaior, a Nigerian visiting fellow at Cambridge, also emphasizes that the opposition is too weak at the moment to take on the PDP, which has been in power since 1999.

What about the opposition?

Some of the main opposition parties, including the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), the All Nigeria People’s Party (ANPP), the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), and the Labour Party (LP) were expected to hold their presidential primaries the day after the PDP convention.

An influential figure within the opposition ACN is Bola Tinubu, former Lagos State Governor, though on of the party’s presidential aspirants is Nuhu Ribadu, the respected former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). They’re likely to get some support in the south-west and some parts of the north, including the middle-belt.

The CPC’s presidential candidate is General Muhammadu Buhari, who was the military ruler in Nigeria between 1983 and 1985. Despite his military background, Buhari — a Muslim — is a hugely popular figure in Nigeria, especially in the north, as he is remembered for being an energetic crusader against corruption while in office.

There are already indications that some leading northern figures within the PDP, such as the former Governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria Adamu Ciroma, might switch their support from Atiku to Buhari.

Will they mount a realistic challenge come April?

Some analysts have suggested an alliance between the ACN and CPC would challenge the dominant PDP. According to Higazi, some Nigerians think Ribadu would be willing to form such an alliance.

The ANPP and LP are quite strong in some states, but lack sufficient backing at the national level to mount a serious challenge. However these parties could benefit from potential defections from the PDP. In Plateau State, for example, the current governor — Jonah Jang — regained the PDP nomination unopposed due to the advantages of incumbency, so the other governorship aspirants and internal PDP opposition to the governor from within the Plateau PDP decamped to the LP. They will then select someone from among themselves to contest for the governorship of Plateau State in April’s General Election. According to Higazi, this kind of political maneuvering is also happening elsewhere in Nigeria.

What are the main issues affecting Nigeria?

In Nigeria, an estimated 13,500 people have died in religious or ethnic clashes since the end of military rule in 1999, Human Rights Watch said in a report last year.

Christmas Eve attacks in the volatile city of Jos claimed at least 31 lives. Jos is the capital of Plateau state, situated in the majority Christian middle-belt within northern Nigeria.

92 arrested after recent attacks

On January 19 last year, more than 200 Muslims were killed in attacks on Kuru Karama and other villages outside of Jos. Then in March, at least 200 Christian villagers were massacred near Jos, in the village of Dogo Nahauwa.

According to IHS Jane’s, a defense and security analysis company, Boko Haram is a Muslim militant group that emerged in 2003 and is fighting against the Nigerian state, and for the implementation of strict Islamic law. Earlier this month, police arrested 92 people allegedly affiliated with the group. Boko Haram is regarded as a fringe group in northern Nigeria and is opposed by the Muslim establishment in the country.

The country’s oil-rich Niger Delta has also been the focal point of a violent insurgency in recent years. One of the most prominent rebel groups, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, and other militant groups say they’re fighting for a fairer distribution of the region’s oil wealth. The federal government agreed an amnesty for the militants to ease tensions in the restive delta, which, according to James Tsaaior, appears to be holding.

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