NIGERIAN President Goodluck Jonathan seemed to be riding high in his bid to be chosen by the ruling party as its presidential nominee for next year’s elections. That is, until two car bombs went off in the country’s capital a few weeks ago during a parade to mark the 50th anniversary of independence.
The propaganda war that erupted over who was responsible for the blasts may have damaged Jonathan’s chances of being a compromise candidate for a country traditionally run along a north-south political divide. Under an informal agreement reached within the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) after the end of military rule in the late 1990s, the top job should alternate between northern Nigeria, a predominantly Muslim region from where past military rulers hailed, and southern Nigeria, made up of multiple ethnic groups.
Southerner Jonathan’s ascent to power in May on the death of his predecessor interrupted the north’s term, represented by the late Umaru Yar’Adua, following two terms by Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner.
Jonathan was expected to step down in favour of a northern candidate for next year’s poll, but he has now said the north-south agreement was unconstitutional and proclaimed himself a candidate for the PDP nomination.
He has been a popular president, not just in his own region, and has even found support from northern politicians for his presidential bid. He launched his campaign with an announcement of sweeping reforms in the key power sector and promises to use oil profits for national reconstruction. But just as there was a glimmer of hope that the country might be moving away from its ethnic and religious constraints, Jonathan got into a war of words over who was responsible for the bombings.
Although the rebel group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) claimed responsibility, Jonathan quickly asserted that the atrocities were the work of criminal elements.
Jonathan, while vice-president, was the key negotiator in the 2009 cease-fire agreement with Mend. Its culpability for a crime perpetrated at the heart of his presidency compromises his reputation of having a grip on security in the delta.
His northern rivals for power jumped on the propaganda bandwagon, asserting that the president, by “protecting” Mend, proved he could not rise above partisan interests.
Jonathan then had the campaign manager for one of his PDP rivals, former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, arrested for questioning over the blasts, raising the temperature. As one journalist in Nigeria wrote, Jonathan “shot himself in the foot and then put the bloody foot in his mouth”.
But the northern candidates’ attempts to undermine Jonathan are not covering them in glory either. Although they are high-profile politicians and more experienced than Jonathan, they do not offer Nigerians much they haven’t seen before.
The saga has reached all the way to the courtrooms of Johannesburg, where leading Mend activist Henry Okah has been arrested on suspicion of being behind the bombings — although he has proclaimed his innocence. Ironically, Okah, who lives in SA, further dented Jonathan’s ambitions, telling the media the president’s office had asked him to blame northerners for the bombings and get Mend to withdraw its statement claiming responsibility.
Nigeria is poised on the brink of what could be the most auspicious economic period in its history, given investor interest in the market and the trajectory of reform in key sectors. So the PDP needs to choose wisely. But that may be a bridge too far for politicians more used to making decisions based on short-term self-interest rather than Nigeria’s long-term gains.