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In Nigeria, political excitement comes long before the general election

Although Nigeria's general election isn't until April, gubernatorial elections and an upcoming presidential primary are generating early excitement and sometimes tension.

By Alex ThurstonGuest blogger / January 10, 2011

Electoral officers carry election materials into vehicles in the oil city of Warri in Nigeria's Delta state on Jan. 6. A governorship election in one of Nigeria's main oil states, seen as a litmus test ahead of nationwide polls, passed without major unrest on Thursday, although there were isolated acts of sabotage.

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Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) will hold its national presidential primary on Thursday, but a lot of political action is also taking place at the state level. As governors around the country ran in primaries and special elections over the weekend, the PDP saw its dominance confirmed in many places but also experienced significant infighting. Meanwhile, political violence in different parts of the country continues to cast a shadow over preparations for the general elections in April.

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One of the most high-profile gubernatorial races occurred Friday in Delta State, as former Governor Emmanuel Uduaghan (PDP) decisively won a re-run election. In November, a court removed Uduaghan from office over allegations of fraud stemming from the 2007 elections. Journalists called the re-run election a test both for the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC)’s credibility and for the PDP. INEC officials and President Goodluck Jonathan were satisfied with how things went in Delta State, though INEC noted some problems with voter rolls. Violence also occurred in the context of the campaigning.

Yesterday, the PDP held gubernatorial primaries for the 27 (of Nigeria’s 36) states it controls. Party switches, open races (because of term-limited governors), and internal power struggles contributed to an atmosphere of political excitement and, in some cases, real tension. As Nigeria’s Daily Independent described the day, “There were hardly surprises on Sunday in the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Governorship primaries, as incumbents swept the tickets from Kaduna to Plateau to Bayelsa.” Yet, the report continues, the elections were “streaked with violence, the jumping of ship of one big fish in Adamawa, dispute in Ogun, and postponement in Oyo.” In Katsina State, disputes over the primaries left some PDP supporters threatening to defect to the new Congress for Progressive Change. Even before the primaries, political violence and party infighting in the states had become a serious concern for the PDP’s national leadership.

Political violence, in fact, has often accompanied this cycle’s campaigns and elections, whether it directly targets political partisans or just takes place alongside political contests. Christian-Muslim clashes continue in Jos, with an undercurrent of political discontent often pulling religious tension along with it. Shootings continue in northeastern Nigeria, at least some of them linked to the rebel group Boko Haram. And a battle broke out last week at a political rally in Bayelsa State in the South. Those are only some of the examples of violence.

As the PDP heads into its national primary, the trend is favoring the re-election of incumbents, which bodes well for President Jonathan. But incumbent candidates also face real challenges in the form of violence and dissent. We’ll see what happens Thursday, but more important may be what comes afterwards, and how the PDP’s presidential nominee builds consensus and enthusiasm within the ranks of his own party.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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