Former military leader to challenge Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan

Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, who announced his reelection bid last week, will field a challenge from former military president Ibrahim Babangida, who faces charges of financial mismanagement.

Sunday Alamba/AP
Supporters of former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida hold posters during a campaign rally to kick off his bid for president in Abuja, Nigeria, Wednesday, Sept. 15. Babangida, a general who took power after a 1985 coup, promised to serve only one, four-year term in office if elected. However, many remember Babangida for annulling the presidential election of June 1993.

In Nigerian parlance, former military leader president Babangida ‘stormed’ Abuja’s Eagle Square on Sept. 15 to declare his presidential bid on the platform of the ruling People’s Democratic Party. And then it was reported, after all the self-congratulations, that his ‘teeming’ supporters were seen engaging in fisticuffs at the various motor parks as they prepared to return to their homes because they considered they had been cheated of their share of the largesse that was the reason for their presence in the first place.

Welcome to politics, Nigerian style. There are no issues, only money. In Babangida’s case, he is under investigation for $12.4 billion he is alleged to have mismanaged during his eight-year tenure. That tenure ended with his ignominious annulment of the 1993 elections, for which some Nigerians have never forgiven him.

Everything now hinges on whether he can win the PDP ticket at their convention on Nov. 23. However, to achieve this he needs to overcome a number of obstacles: the first is the the president himself; the second is his core constituency, which is anxious to present a younger candidate as the more acceptable face of the largely Moslem north.

Regarding the first, there is the simple power of incumbency, and with it the huge resources the president commands. What started off at independence in 1960 as an amalgamation of semi-autonomous regions with a loose center has morphed over the years into a unitary state following the civil war in the late 1960s and the long years of military dictatorship with its single command, orders-are-orders structure. Babangida may have an awful lot of money, but President Goodluck Jonathan has even more, which he can spend in cash or in kind.

As for the second, the emergence of Bukola Saraki, the two-time governor of Kwara State, as yet another presidential hopeful in the PDP camp must be particularly disturbing for the former general. To understand why this is so, one must grasp something of the Byzantine nature of Nigerian politics which grants the north not only more people the nearer you get to the Sahara (which is why only the federal government has the constitutional right to count the population), but more states. Kwara, which is geographically and culturally part of the south (or, most neutrally, the so-called Middle Belt), has been co-opted for that purpose. Saraki also appears to have the backing of more governors than Babangida (although less than Jonathan), a crucial factor given the disproportionate weight the 36 governors command within the PDP national executive.

Given that Jonathan is most likely to receive the presidential ticket next month, one must assume that Babangida has already made plans to contest on the platform of another party. This will make his task more difficult again given the history of election-rigging, which has happened in every exercise since 1999, each worse than the last – and this despite the president’s pledge to an exasperated international community (and an even more exasperated country) that this time every vote will count. Not that it matters anyway. Few people seriously believe that Babangida stands any chance even as they are anxious to help him spend his money, which in any case they consider their money that he has been holding in trust on their account, hence the ugly scenes at the motor parks following his declaration. As someone put it to me the day afterwards, with Babangida’s posters on every available lamppost between the airport and the city, God has decided to deal with the man they call the Evil Genius. Personally, I would put it down to hubris, but perhaps one is saying the same thing.

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