By Ike Okonta
LAGOS: The bombs that exploded in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, as the country was celebrating its golden jubilee earlier this month are a disturbing portent of the unprecedented political territory that the country is entering.
The death last May of Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s president, upended the informal agreement between members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to rotate power between northern Muslims and their southern, mainly Christian counterparts. Yar’Adua’s deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, from the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south, overcame resistance from members of the late president’s cabinet and was sworn in as Yar’Adua’s successor, as stipulated by the constitution. In September, he told Nigerians of his intention to run for another presidential term in 2011.
President Jonathan’s announcement triggered furious protests from his northern rivals, including Ibrahim Babangida, a former military dictator who reminded him that Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, had served as president from 1999, when military rule ended, to 2007, with northern support. Yar’Adua had completed only three years of his first four-year term when he died, and it was expected that all southerners, including Jonathan, would unite behind another northerner for next year’s vote.
But resentment of northerners’ perceived dominance of national politics runs deep in the south, particularly in the Niger Delta, where 50 years of uncontrolled oil production has resulted in polluted farmlands and deepening poverty. The ethnic minority groups that inhabit the area complain that the current revenue-allocation formula, which leaves Nigeria’s oil-producing states with only 13 percent of oil revenue, is grossly unfair and insufficient compensation for the damaged ecology they endure.
In January 2006, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), a violent organization led by angry Delta youth, began to attack oil installations and the soldiers guarding them. MEND and other local groups are demanding that the country return to “true federalism” in the spirit of 1960, and that 50 percent of oil revenue be retained by the region’s inhabitants. Ken Saro-Wiwa, a writer and founder of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), a grassroots movement in Ogoniland, had called for this as well, before he was hanged by General Sani Abacha’s junta in 1995.
Leading voices in the region have come out strongly in Jonathan’s support, and have asked him to ignore northern politicians who insist that the PDP’s power rotation arrangement be respected. Delta leaders point out that 2011 is the ‘minorities’ turn to govern the country after being sat upon by the larger ethnic groups since the end of colonial rule in 1960.
It is not yet clear whether Goodluck Jonathan will be able to translate this sectional support into enough votes in the party primaries and beyond to retain the presidency. He has the advantage of a massive war chest, given that Nigeria’s leaders have always done with the public treasury what they liked.
But General Babangida also has deep pockets. Besides, PDP’s powerful governors, in control of 28 of the country’s 36 states, see Jonathan as an upstart who came from the middle of nowhere to become president.
The powers of the Nigerian presidency are extensive, and Jonathan’s handlers have been dropping loud hints that they will deploy them to whip the governors — including the northerners — into line. Northern PDP leaders, still pressuring the region’s large group of presidential contenders, including Babangida, to agree on who will fight it out with Jonathan, are already looking beyond the primaries. They are threatening to take the northern vote to another party if they lose the PDP ticket.
This could have far-reaching consequences for the PDP and the country. The PDP, in power since military rule ended in 1999, is widely disliked. Corruption is widespread, and PDP politicians have been unable to deliver the prosperity and improved social services that Nigerians looked forward to following the return of democracy. Indeed, the PDP has been able to retain power only by rigging successive elections, most spectacularly in 2007, when the outgoing Obasanjo foisted Yar’Adua on the party hierarchy.
The poorly resourced opposition could benefit if the expected northern backlash divides the PDP. Nuhu Ribadu, the respected former chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, has announced his intention to contest the presidency as the candidate of one of the opposition parties.
A Muslim northerner, Ribadu enjoys the support of youth and democrats nationwide. The latter are regaining confidence in the political process, following the recent appointment of a no-nonsense academic as head of the election commission. Muhammadu Buhari, whom Babangida replaced as military head of state in 1985, is also expected to run, as the nominee of the Congress of Progressive Change.
Doubts linger about whether longtime northern PDP leaders, used to cutting midnight deals with their southern counterparts, would break ranks and support Ribadu next year. Conservative northerners also view Buhari, an ascetic politician popular with the region’s poor, with unease.
Even if they overcome their reservations and back Ribadu or Buhari, and either candidate goes on to beat Jonathan at the polls, angry Delta youths could respond with fresh violence against oil workers, disrupting production. Other trouble spots — central Nigeria, where ethnic tensions are simmering, and the far north, the stomping ground of Boko Haram, a violent Muslim sect — could get sucked into election-related violence.
With industries collapsing because of constant power outages, unemployment soaring, and cynical politicians forcing their impoverished followers into ethnic and religious laagers, Nigeria’s 2011 elections are shaping up to be a perfect storm. In the past, Nigeria has always managed to weather its political tempests. Will it do so again?
Ike Okonta is the author of When Citizens Revolt: Nigerian Elites, Big Oil, and the Ogoni Struggle for Self-Determination. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, www.project-syndicate.org.