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.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

Underlying all this, of course, is the assumption that the PDP will remain unchallenged at the polls. Up until the elections of 2007, which by common consent of election observers was the worst election ever held in Nigeria, this could be guaranteed. But things have changed. President Jonathan recently appointed a respected academic, Attahiru Jega, to head the Independent National Election Commission, and gave the INEC 87 billion naira ($580 million) to keep the next elections free and fair. Yet, since political office still means access to oil revenues, the influence of corruption is difficult to eradicate.

The PDP itself is remaining silent on which of the contending candidates will emerge as its choice. But the fact that both IBB – as Babangida is known – and Atiku have managed to get themselves this far says much about the power of money. As one senior PDP figure put it: ‘If you check or do a poll on the population of the North you will find that there are those who have money and the power to do whatever they want.’

True enough: IBB has himself been accused of looting $12.4 billion from the oil windfall during the first Gulf War when he was head of state.

“I know that a day will come when Nigerians will forgive our regime because we are a godly nation that embraces the culture of forgiveness,” Babangida said: “Severally and with great remorse too, I have taken responsibility as a true leader for the actions and decisions of the military administration that I led.”

Babangida has also said that he would rule very differently than he did during his time as military ruler: “I have also spent many years to understudy democratic leadership in several countries and have mastered the art of democracy and learnt how to apply it better under our Nigerian conditions.”

Atiku, a former custom’s chief before he became vice-president to Obasanjo, is widely perceived as one of the richest men in the country. They have doubtless used that muscle to bulldoze their way thus far. In the process, however, they have undermined what used to be the north’s greatest political strength: the ability to temper personal ambition to the collective interest. Gone are the days when any lackluster candidate would do.

“I am not seeking the presidency because I want to be rich and famous,” Mr. Atiku said in announcing his candidacy. “Life is also about those with the capacity and talent to help others and the society as a whole to roll up their sleeves and do so. I have had the privilege of travelling quite a bit outside this country and I always come close to shedding tears when I see what countries that were less endowed than Nigeria have been able to do in the effort to provide infrastructure, investment support and social services for their people. I know that we can do the same in Nigeria.”

At the same time, any objective reading of their respective chances would seem to indicate that neither of them will stand much of a chance if the elections really are free and fair.

Corruption charges aside, IBB earned the undying hatred of the southwestern part of the country by annulling an election which one of their sons, the business mogul Moshood Abiola, was presumed to have won in 1993, thus paving the way for the five-year terror of his deputy, General Sani Abacha, who earned international opprobrium in November 1995 when he caused Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight of his fellow activists to be judicially murdered by a military tribunal which established their guilt even before it began sitting. There is also the tricky matter of the 1987 parcel bomb murder of Dele Giwa, a respected journalist who had allegedly obtained information about drug-dealing within the ruling military itself. But at least IBB, who has earned the nicknames ‘the evil genius’ and ‘the Maradona of Nigerian politics,’ has a certain charisma, complete with his trademark gap-tooth smile. This can hardly be said of Atiku, a lackluster fellow who resembles a party apparatchik better suited to behind-the-scenes politicking.

At stake now is whether the INEC can do the seemingly impossible. This will be the true test of whether we emerge into proper democracy or continue with what we are pleased to call our ‘nascent’ democracy. And behind this is the ultimate question of whether this large, rambling, fractured entity called Nigeria – an artificial creation to begin with – can remain as one. The stresses inherent in what one former politician accurately called ‘a mere geographical expression’ resulted in one civil war (1967-1970) and may now be facing a second, more serious one.

Adewale Maja-Pearce writes the Letter from Lagos for New African magazine.

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