Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Suddenly, Nigeria's election bursts into life

Abuja

Dear Confidentialers,

After months of musings and murmurings, Nigeria's elections and the politics around them are taking shape. Giant posters extolling the virtues of candidates – declared and undeclared – are cropping up across the country. Nigeria's lively press is set for an election bonanza offering an enticing mix of witty analysis and malicious gossip.

The latest bout of excitement follows the deliberations by the ruling People's Democratic Party over whether President Goodluck Jonathan can compete for the party's presidential nomination in next year's elections.

An internal party rule known as 'zoning' alternates the PDP's presidential nomination between the south and the north. On the face of it, Jonathan would be ineligible because it is the turn of the north in the next election and Jonathan hails from the Niger Delta or south-south zone.

Such delicate matters have been negotiated behind the closed doors of the PDP headquarters and in the luxurious villas of the party barons in Abuja. The compromise deal announced last week recognises that as Jonathan came to power in extraordinary circumstances – due to the death of a sitting president Umaru Yar'Adua – some pragmatism was required.

So Jonathan can run for the PDP nomination but he will have no special rights over it. And if he does run for it, he will have to compete with rivals from the north. For now Jonathan has taken a vow of silence on his electoral intentions but almost everyone in Abuja is sure that he wants to run.

On Sunday Jonathan's first two rivals for the PDP's presidential nomination stepped onto the starting line. They are two heavyweight candidates from the North – former military leader General Ibrahim Babangida and former Vice President Abubakar Atiku Abubakar.

Both are political veterans with capacious war chests, and are attracting plenty of avowed loyalists and determined detractors. Of the two, General Babangida – still hailed as the Maradona of politics by friends – made the more colourful entry into the race, inviting a band of newspaper and television journalists to his hilltop mansion in Niger state. Babangida is in celebratory mood this week: it is his 69th birthday on 17 August.

August has particular resonance for Babangida. It was 25 years ago on 27 August, he and his colleague General Sani Abacha seized power in a palace coup. And 17 years ago also on that date, Babangida quit power in the face of mounting opposition after his junta had annulled the national elections held on 12 June that year.

Atiku's announcement at Abuja's Hilton hotel was duller and even more stage-managed. Rivals claim that Atiku, who left the ruling party in 2007 after a spat with President Olusegun Obasanjo, has not been confirmed as having formally rejoined the party. And the governor of Atiku's state of Adamawa, Murtala Nyako, is refusing to help.

Several likely presidential contenders are yet to declare. Another former military head of state, General Muhammadu Buhari will stand on the presidential ticket for the newly-formed Congress for Progressive Change. And there is excited talk about getting the former anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu to stand as presidential candidate for the radical Action Congress of Nigeria.

Much remains to be decided. The long-awaited electoral reform act has not received the presidential signature so there is no election timetable yet. The head of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Attahiru Jega, wants a new voters list which will mean registering about 70 million voters well before the elections are due in January. In five weeks time Nigeria is to celebrate 50 years of independence on 1 October in grand style with a massive fireworks display organised by – who else – some experts from China. After that party is over several busy months of politicking lie ahead.

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