Nigeria's ruling party prepares for a stiff race at its nominating convention

Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan is in a tight race for the ruling People's Democratic Party presidential nomination because of the party's desire to give both the northern and southern regions a turn in office.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan addresses the executive members of the ruling People's Democratic Party at the national executive meeting in the capital Abuja on Dec. 14.

Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party will hold its presidential nominating convention on Jan. 13. The contest pits incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan against former Vice President Atiku Abubakar. It will represent a test for the principle of “zoning,” which recommends that the party alternate Southerners and Northerners for its presidential nominees every eight years. Some PDP members, such as the Northern Political Leaders Forum (NPLF), interpret this principle to mean that since President Umaru Yar’Adua, a Northerner, died part-way through his first term, the party should nominate a Northern candidate for the current election. Abubakar is the consensus candidate of the NPLF. The advantages of incumbency might favor Jonathan for the nomination, but a recent poll gives hope to Abubakar, and other observers say a Jonathan victory might split the PDP.

First, the poll:

The survey stated that six of every 10 automatic delegates to the presidential nomination convention of PDP said the principle of zoning would determine the way they vote in selecting the party’s candidate.

In their own interpretation, the researchers said a vote in this direction was almost certainly going to hurt the President Goodluck Jonathan’s bid for the PDP ticket.

The poll is the second in two weeks. The first one, which also favoured the former Vice President to pick the PDP ticket, was marred in controversy.

The new survey was conducted by a group of Social Science Scholars coordinated by Dr. Mohammed Nu’uman Habib, former Head, Department of Sociology, Bayero University (BUK), Kano.


As many as 57 per cent of the delegates said they are undecided on who they would be voting for in the presidential primaries if the contest is between incumbent President Jonathan, and his main challenger, Atiku Abubakar.


The polls carried out over a three-day period (December 19-21) showed the delegates rating incumbency factor as being of “little importance”, with 46.77 per cent saying it is of no significance to their voting intentions. Twenty-five per cent or a quarter of respondents think incumbency is an important factor.


An analysis of the distribution of those already committed to the two candidates, showed that President Jonathan has an unbeatable majority from the South-South, while Atiku has the South-West delegates in his corner. Atiku also has the majority votes in North-West and North-East zones. Delegates from the South-East and North-Central zones are in the majority of those that refused to say how they would vote.

To review, 60 percent of surveyed delegates favor zoning (potentially indicating that they favor a Northerner for this year’s nomination), 57 percent are undecided on who they support, and Abubakar has majority support from three of Nigeria’s six “geopolitical zones.”

How much those numbers matter obviously depends on at least two considerations: 1) How accurate you think the survey is and 2) What effect you think the publication of the survey results will have on delegates’ thinking. For myself, I rarely trust in polls, but it will be interesting to see how the survey results match up to the final vote, especially in terms of the zonal distributions. Previous winning coalitions in Nigeria have often paired the Southeast with the Northwest to the exclusion of the Northeast and the Southwest. In any case, perhaps Abubakar will have a stronger showing than I initially thought.

However the vote goes, the story won’t necessarily end with the convention. Former Ambassador John Campbell argues that threats from senior Northern PDP members to leave the party, and the “likely” failure of a legal suit to require the PDP to follow zoning, are harbingers of the “impending fragmentation of the PDP.” An editorial in Nigeria’s The Nation predicts a similar outcome: “From the way they are going about the campaign, it is obvious that neither man will support the other if he picks the ticket. The cards, as it were are stacked against Atiku. But he cannot be written off at this stage despite the clear stand of the party on who it is likely to support, if the chips are down, for the ticket.”

The two candidates will meet on Monday, potentially offering a chance to iron out logistics and grievances, but much remains uncertain heading into the convention. It matters not only who wins, but how they win and how the loser(s) react: the events of Jan. 13 will partly set the tone for the general election.

More on the candidates’ campaign styles here (scroll down to article).

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

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