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Nigeria's 2011 presidential race tests North-South powersharing agreement

Nigeria's 2011 presidential race is squaring former president Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar – both Muslims from the north – against incumbent Goodluck Jonathan from the Christian south.

By Adewale Maja-PearceGuest blogger / August 16, 2010

Nigeria's former military head of state Ibrahim Babangida, former president Olusegun Obasanjo, and former head of state Muhamodu Buhari (L-R) seen together Aug. 5. Babangida has formally declared his intention to seek the ruling party's nomination for the presidential election next year, a further blow to incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan. Babangida seized power in 1985 and ruled for nearly eight years.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters

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Lagos, Nigeria

With the entry of a former Nigerian president and a former vice president into the presidential fray, the 2011 Nigerian elections are off to an early start, setting the stage for a leadership change that could decide whether the oil-rich nation will finally take up the international and regional role that its economic importance would seem to give it.

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The sudden emergence of former military president Ibrahim Babangida and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar as presidential candidates was not unexpected. Both are Muslims from Nigeria's north. But their emergence poses some interesting questions.

What, for instance, happens to the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, whose rise to the number one slot was made possible by the sudden death of President Umaru Yar’Adua?

And what will happen to the gentleman’s agreement of power rotation, between the Muslim North and the mainly Christian south, which the long-ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has used to help keep the peace between North and South?

“I think Nigeria is strong enough, and has absorbed enough shocks over the last three years that it is ready to handle this question,” says Charles Dokubo, director of the Nigerian Institute for International Affairs in Abuja. “I believe Nigeria has matured to the point that where you come from does not matter anymore.”

If Nigeria were not the largest democracy in Africa and also one of the largest economies, with oil reserves that make it the US’s fifth largest source of imported oil, then all this talk of presidential politics might seem inconsequential. But Nigeria’s size and economic heft make it impossible to ignore. Corruption in the halls of government, ethno-religious conflicts, and insurrection in the oil-rich Niger Delta have a nasty habit of affecting prices at the local fuel pump, and political stability is Nigeria’s best chance of getting a handle on these two major problems.

Given the ethnic and religious complexities of Nigeria – and the recurring cycles of violence between communities of the north and south since independence – the ruling PDP adopted “zoning” or power rotation in the interests of what it called equity. According to this idea, power should be rotated between the largely Christian south and the largely Muslim north. The south had its own turn under former President Olusegun Obasanjo from 1999 to 2007. Yar’Adua then took over but, alas, died half-way through what was supposed to be the first of two consecutive terms in January 2010.

Goodluck Jonathan – who as a southern Christian was chosen as Yar’Adua’s running mate under the same equity principle – took over as president after months of confusion and debate. Was he acting president or would he enjoy substantive powers? For their part, Jonathan’s constituency, the minorities of the restive Niger Delta, insist that Jonathan should now contest the next election, saying the north’s term in office – while brief – is now over.

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