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Despite security and economic crises, Jonathan wins his party’s support for a second term while the opposition faces a leadership contest
The candidate's declaration speech is, by tradition, a key moment in the theatre of Nigerian politics. President Goodluck Jonathan's rally in Abuja on 11 November to announce that he would run for a second term in February captured many of its contradictions. The day before, a young man had walked into the morning assembly at the Government Technical College in Potiskum, Yobe State, and detonated a bomb in his rucksack, killing himself and 47 others. A flood of condemnation followed from top politicians and generals. Civic activists called for better security for schools and colleges. Yet politics as usual resumed the next day as party managers laid on a well choreographed rally at Eagle Square. Their aim was to reinvigorate a President who has been frequently on the defensive.
With the backing of most of the political and business elite north and south, the People's Democratic Party (PDP) has dominated politics since military rule ended in 1999. That support sometimes turns to grudging acquiesence as concern mounts about national direction and growing regional polarisation. United in a national alliance for the first time since 1999, opposition parties blame Jonathan for a stuttering economy and failing to tackle Islamist violence.
At Eagle Square, such complaints were drowned out by the horns of the marching bands and a stream of political endorsements from young singers and musicians. A parade of keynote speakers from the six geopolitical zones vied with each other to express their admiration for Jonathan and his works. Most PDP state governors rolled up with their entourages and PDP National Assembly members turned out in force: their ranks were depleted by a wave of defections to the opposition last year (AC Vol 55 No 15, The Jonathan surge).Meanwhile, some of the best seats were taken by Nollywood film stars, footballers and well-heeled business people, among the heaviest investors in the campaign.
Noting the symbolism of the moment, Jonathan gave a measured address. He called for a minute's silence to mark the Potiskum bombing. Then he moved quickly on to the declaration speech, reciting the achievements of 'four impactful years, despite the challenges to our stewardship'. Using an autocue, he assumed the demeanour of a modern, practised politician.
Preaching to the PDP faithful
Rattling through lists of power stations, gas plants, roads and railways, Jonathan reminded the faithful of all his government had done – and indeed would do if given a second term. He did not once mention the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC), a merger of four factions last December which is yet to decide on its standard bearer in the elections (AC Vol 55 No 17, Oil, the political lubricant). Under the party's savvy new National Chairman, Adamu Mu'azu, the Jonathan campaign has liberally dispensed patronage among the more disenchanted party barons in the north.
By contrast, in the APC there will be a serious electoral contest for the presidential nomination. Supporters of Major General Muhammadu Buhari, military ruler in 1983-85 and three times the losing candidate in elections since 2003, say no other candidate enjoys his popular appeal in the north. Rabiu Kwankwaso, the outgoing Governor of Kano State, argues that the party has to look to the new generation that he represents. Aminu Tambuwal, the popular Speaker of the House of Representatives, who defected to the opposition only in late October, had been toying with the same ambition but is now planning to run for the governorship of Sokoto State (AC Vol 55 No 1, Economy billowing, politics floundering).
In the wings with an even more fluid view of party alignments is Atiku Abubakar, who was PDP Vice-President in 1999-2007. He contested the presidency as an opposition candidate in 2007, then rejoined the PDP in 2010. After failing to make much progress there, he returned once more to the opposition in 2013. Behind them all stands Bola Ahmed Tinubu, Governor of Lagos State in 1999-2007 and the acknowledged godfather of the APC. He has flirted with each of the candidates but committed to none. Indeed Tom Ikimi, a former Foreign Minister, stormed out of the opposition this year accusing Tinubu of cutting a clandestine deal to help Jonathan in the south-west.
Lagos and Kano states must loom large in the APC's strategy and choice of candidate. With 6.1 million and 5 mn. registered electors respectively in 2011, these states are critical to the opposition's success. The PDP has never won a governorship election in Lagos, although the state voted strongly for Jonathan in the presidential election in 2011.
Leaders of Jonathan's campaign believe Buhari would be the biggest challenge but expect the APC to be badly damaged in its primary elections. They reckon that losing contestants are unlikely to rally behind whoever emerges as the opposition candidate. They add the APC faces a far more delicate choice than the PDP in selecting a running mate.
Religion and running mates
The strongest candidate for this post would be outgoing Lagos Governor Babatunde Fashola, who is widely hailed for improving power and transport in the State. Yet political veterans such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo have warned that in the current environment, a party's candidates for the presidency and vice-presidency cannot be from the same faith group. Given that the APC candidate is certain to be a Muslim, that may rule out Fashola, who is also Muslim, albeit one in the Lagos mode: married to a Catholic and an energetic advocate of religious tolerance. That would leave Kayode Fayemi, the former Governor of Ekiti State and a Catholic, who has a similar record of achieving reform to Fashola. Sceptics about Bola Tinubu's alignment suggest he may hesitate to promote a top figure in the south-west as candidate for the vice-presidency, because it could undercut his own regional authority in the area.
In the 2011 elections Jonathan, from the Niger Delta, was the leading candidate in states in the south, while Buhari, from Katsina, was ahead in the north. However, the common perceptions of a neat geographical/religious cleavage – Christian south and Muslim north – are misplaced. There are, for instance, substantial numbers of Muslims in the more prosperous south-west, both among the local Yoruba people and among Hausa migrants from the north. There is also much intermarriage between the faiths. Similarly, many Christians live in the Middle Belt and northern states. Some, such as Matthew Hassan Kukah, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, are among the most forthright advocates of faster economic development in the north (AC Interview, August 2010).
Jonathan picked up almost 60% of the national vote in the 2011 elections, partly because he won a decent share in Buhari's strongholds. Yet Buhari, despite winning a substantial majority in the north, did far less well in Jonathan's strongholds in the Niger Delta and the south-east, and failed to match him even in the traditionally anti-PDP states in the south-west. What constitutes core support in a Nigerian presidential election reflects a range of factors, many only tangentially related to performance, popularity or integrity.
APC leaders have lambasted Jonathan's handling of the Boko Haram insurgency but are short on detail as to what they might do differently in the face of the military's often lacklustre performance. They point to missed opportunities on the economy but are vague about how they would manage the likely downturn as oil prices plunge on international markets (AC Vol 55 No 21, Follow the money).
Jonathan's aides respond to Buhari's criticism of governance by pointing to the questionable records of many senior APC politicians. Both sides' strategists agree that the key areas of competition will be not policy or personality but who assembles the most effective campaign networks to get the votes out (and to monitor the poll and the count) in the south-west and north-west. If the APC carries those two regions, the party believes it can take the election to an unprecedented run-off. Jonathan's campaign managers believe they have invested sufficiently in a raft of no-nonsense politicians for National Assembly and State Governor elections in the south-west, and cultivated some influential voices in the north-west, to ensure that does not happen.
Opposition supporters looking for symbolism note that key PDP patriarchs – including former President Obasanjo and the ailing former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida – were notable by their absence from Jonathan's Eagle Square declaration. A technical failure with the Public Address system ensured that few of those in the crowd were able to hear the President. There will be no shortage of similar, if less grandiose, speechifying over the next three months as well-remunerated and often foreign advisors pore over calculations of voting patterns and trends in social media. Experts from the United States' Democratic Party are proferring advice to both sides.
Joe Trippi, who worked on the campaigns of such luminaries as Walter Mondale, Edward Kennedy and Howard Dean, is advising Jonathan. Alongside him is Bell Pottinger, the firm that helped Margaret Thatcher win three elections.
For the APC, David Axelrod, legendary campaign strategist for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, is working on strategy and messaging. Alongside his company is Britain's BTP Advisers, led by Mark Pursey, which played a robust role in Uhuru Kenyatta's nationalist election campaign in 2013.
Yet such consultations and calculations stand in stark contrast to the realities of an insurgency which is in some ways more brutal, if less strategic, than that raging in Iraq and Syria. The Global Terrorism Index released this week groups Nigeria together with Iraq, Pakistan and Syria as the countries most targeted by terrorists but concludes that the attacks in Nigeria's northern states have the highest casualty rate. For many politicians, businesses and foreign allies in Nigeria, that is an inconvenient truth that they struggle to acknowledge, let alone confront.
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