After Umaru Yar'Adua, Nigeria's power tussle: Will Goodluck Jonathan run?

With the death of Nigeria's President Umaru Yar’Adua, the 2011 presidential election race has effectively begun. Who are the contenders? What are the pros and cons of new president Goodluck Jonathan running for second term?

By , Correspondent

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    The body of Nigeria's late President Umaru Yar'Adua is brought past an honor guard, to be transported for burial in his home state of Katsina, at the airport in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday.
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The death of Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, will intensify a succession battle that is already under way in Africa’s most populous country. Elections will be held next year.

Goodluck Jonathan, who has been acting president since February, was swiftly sworn in as president Thursday morning. Mr. Jonathan said he was coming to power in “sad and unusual circumstances”.

The late president had not been seen in public since checking into a Saudi Arabian clinic last November, when he was reportedly suffering from a heart condition. He came home in February but never returned to work. Yar’Adua did not fully hand over power or issue information on his health during this time, provoking a series of Nigerian protests, petitions and lawsuits. The exact cause of his death has likewise not yet been disclosed.

The mood amongst Nigerians was surprisingly calm on Thursday. “People are already drained by the last few months. And the way this was all handled cost him [Yar’Adua] some of their goodwill,” says Yinka Odumakin, a political activist who campaigned for more transparency on Yar’Adua’s illness.

Meanwhile, the hunt for next year’s presidential candidate is now likely to gather pace. In sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest energy producer, public office has the particular allure of granting access to the nation’s oil revenues, which account for over 85 percent of government income.

The presidency rotates every two terms between a candidate from the country’s largely Muslim north and mostly Christian south, due to an informal agreement in the ruling People’s Democratic Party. Yar’Adua died during his first term, making a northerner likely to emerge as the 2011 PDP candidate.

Jonathan, a southerner, is now expected to appoint a northern vice-president, who will be groomed as next year’s presidential candidate.

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Who are the potential candidates?

But the tussle in the PDP for this position could split the party, say some analysts, as rival factions push their preferred man into the arena. Possible contenders include Aliyu Gusau, Mr. Jonathan’s national security advisor, and Bukola Saraki, governor of the state of Kwara.

“Whoever he [Jonathan] picks, other factions in the PDP will oppose that choice and create problems,” says Mr. Odumakin. “There will be some implosions in the PDP.”

Ibrahim Babangida, a former military ruler, has also expressed his interest in the PDP ticket. He took over in a bloodless military coup in 1985 and ruled until 1993. Many are horrified at the prospect. “I don’t know whether to cry or laugh,” one Nigerian columnist wrote recently in response to this idea.

And former vice president Atiku Abubakar, who ran for president in the 2007 election as the opposition Action Congress candidate, has also expressed an interest in running for the top office on the PDP ticket.

Will Goodluck Jonathan run?

Meanwhile, Jonathan has won the support of some northerners, who might be happy for him to flout the rotation system and run next year. The once-passive vice-president now appears confident in his new role. In recent weeks he has appointed a new cabinet and met Barack Obama in Washington. He has also promised to tackle Nigeria’s flawed elections, woeful electricity supply, and the militant gangs of the oil-rich Niger Delta.

“I think he will want to run. Once you have been No. 1, you can’t be No. 2 again.” says Thompson Ayodele, director of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis in Lagos.

If Jonathan could make good on any of his promises in his short tenancy, he might be able to win enough support to run next year, Mr. Ayodele adds. He has thus far kept a diplomatic silence on whether or not he has such ambitions.

He has another incentive for running: once he announces his vice president, Jonathan becomes a lame duck president. His party and his ministers will move to curry favor with the de facto presidential candidate.

The PDP's prospects for winning the presidency again are good, at least at this point. It already has a majority in parliament and holds the governorship of more than three-fourths of Nigeria’s 36 states.

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