Nigeria: United they stand against Goodluck Jonathan
Late at night on 11 May in a packed Eagle Square in Abuja, Muhammadu Buhari, a darling of the north and President Goodluck Jonathan’s closest challenger in the 2011 polls, was exhorting the crowd: “Anarchy is knocking on the door of many sections of this country, and the federal government has not demonstrated that it has the good sense to understand what is going on or the competence to check it. The nation is hopelessly adrift.”
At the meeting, Buhari merged his political party, the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), into a wider opposition alliance.
Insiders say a tussle has already emerged between the APC’s two heavyweights
The sense of chaos was deepened three days later when President Jonathan announced a state of emergency in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states.
The new opposition hopes to capitalise on the lack of security that troubles both north and south, with attacks in the Niger Delta once more on the rise.
Nigerians’ love of word play frequently reveals the nation’s mood.
People have coined two new sobriquets for the newly formed opposition mega-party, seen as the biggest threat to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has ruled since the return to civilian rule with the election of President Olusegun Obasanjo in 1999.
To supporters, the All Progressive Congress (APC) is the “Armoured Personnel Carrier”, the ubiquitous military vehicle used both to instil fear and crush dissenters in Nigeria. To detractors, the new alliance is “A Powerless Coalition”.
Patronage Dissolves Loyalty
There may be truth in both labels. Since 1999, every attempt at an opposition merger has disintegrated amid the currents of ethnicity, geographical rivalry and ego that drive Nigerian politics.
Oil wealth patronage from the state-owned Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation is concentrated around Aso Rock, the presidential villa, but recent history favours the new alliance of the four opposition parties: the CPC, the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN), All Nigeria Peoples Party (ANPP) and the All Progressives Grand Alliance.
Combined, they slightly eroded the PDP’s parliamentary majorities in the 2011 elections.
On 18 April, when the mega-party launched its first national convention, dozens of supporters used broomsticks to show their support for the platform on which the APC has launched itself.
“This merger may be the masses’ last option. Nigerians have supported the PDP, but it has largely disappointed,” said attendant Solomon Baba, 34, gesticulating with a broomstick to symbolise sweeping away the current government, a reflection of the pulse of the street.
Against a backdrop of stubborn poverty indicators and with the Jonathan-led PDP reeling beneath monthly ethnic clashes and a rising Islamist insurgency, the APC could drive a wedge into several potential cracks to blow the 2015 race wide open.
The declaration of the state of emergency could affect the race in a number of ways. It could make Buhari seem irrelevant in the region. But it could also blow back in the face of the PDP, should the Nigerian army crack down in a brutal fashion.
The army intervention in Baga, Borno, may be a precursor of heavy-handed interventions to come. New York-based NGO Human Rights Watch says the military’s latest intervention in Baga resulted in the destruction of as many as 2,000 houses.
But the hardest element to manage will be egos. Some worry about the coalition’s ability to throw punches in a personality-dominated arena. Insiders say a tussle has already emerged between the APC’s two heavyweights: former Lagos governor Bola Tinubu and Muhammadu Buhari.
Senate minority whip and Lagos senator Ganiyu Solomon said the APC’s new leaders have put personality politics aside.
“The proof is in the fact that no [opposition merger] has ever come this far. We have had a national convention, we have a manifesto, we have agreed on a constitution,” he said, waving a thick blue manifesto inscribed with the words ‘Slogan: Change.’
The manifesto is yet to be made public, but already there are signs of regional policies emerging.
Invoking the spirit of the modern fathers of the region – Obafemi Awolowo and Samuel Akintola – the coalition’s lawmakers and governors from the south-west-based ACN have offered to use state funds to complete the delayed Lagos-Ibadan expressway and extend it to Ogun State, creating a potentially huge commercial boost for the region.
On the surface, there are other positive signs. A party insider says that governors – kingmakers in Nigeria’s electoral system – are likely to defect from a PDP in decline.
“I can tell you of at least 10 governors who are wavering,” said a governor from the PDP who requested anonymity.
“There is a real danger Rivers [State] will slip. And if that happens, anything can happen,” the governor added. The possibility of losing the oil-producing Rivers State, a once-unthinkable scenario for a party headed by a president from the region, shows the depth of internal rivalries.
Moreover, the PDP leadership’s determination to hold onto power through the till could be its undoing, critics say. “We are already seeing evidence every oil block in Nigeria will be sold for a pittance to get money to win the elections.
If the opposition is smart, it can craft its strategy even on that point alone,” a senior government aide told The Africa Report.
The APC has meanwhile shrugged off suggestions that a lack of access to the patronage networks that fund elections will be its downfall.
“I want to believe that we have reached a point at which many Nigerians now understand that it’s not good enough for someone to give you money and you vote for him, but that what counts is what he does after you vote for him,” said senator Ahmad Lawan, who represents the ANPP in the Yobe North constituency. “People are fed up. They want to see security, jobs around them. They may still collect the money but not vote for that person,” he continued.
Also in the alliance’s favour is the seeming inability for the PDP to stem a deteriorating security situation.
In Borno State, the seat of the bloody four-year insurgency by the Islamists in Boko Haram, two attacks within a month left more than 225 people dead, prompting governor Kashim Shettima to declare the state is at risk of slipping entirely out of government control.
Paranoia at aso rock
“The very first thing pounced on us was that it was a purely northern conspiracy to dislodge the president, and what could [our country] do to help. There is a real sense of paranoia to the point of neuroticism. It’s an extremely dangerous situation,” said a Western diplomat after a confidential security meeting at Aso Rock following the attacks.
Still, recent eruptions of dissatisfaction – including a mass demonstration in January 2012 due to attempts to remove a government fuel subsidy shortly after Boko Haram stepped up a bombing campaign – may not be enough to shift the balance of power.
The APC coalition has its own internal hurdles to overcome. Agreeing on a presidential candidate may be its biggest test.
“The major components of the alliance are determined the next president has to be from the north,” a governor from the party said.
Whether southern alliance members will agree is in doubt, a fact that could leave the party open to accusations of being a regional alliance that cannot agree on common positions in a high-pressure situation.
The most obvious northern candidate is Buhari, say his supporters. He was the country’s military leader from 1983 to 1985 and ran unsuccessfully in elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011.
Yet his popular standing in the north could be dented by running on a different party’s ticket.
“We believe that Buhari could be said to be a man of integrity, but how can he remain patriotic when he is surrounded by politicians with bad agendas?” asks Borno-based resident Danjuma Samuel Magaji.
“The dynamics have changed because you have a situation where the ruling party has reached breaking point, and someone like Buhari is running on a different platform to anything ever before,” said senator Abu Ibrahim of Katsina State, dismissing Buhari’s perennial inability o clinch the top job.
However, he added: “This is not about pushing out the PDP or any single candidate being in power. When the time comes, there will be many candidates and the best suited will be selected.”
Buhari leaves door open
A source close to the party said there are signs the CPC would be willing to leave the ticket open for another candidate.
“Buhari is extremely smart. He has said that in every partnership there needs to be a junior party,” the source added.
Babatunde Fashola, the Lagos governor who is credited with helping to turn around the commercial capital, is another key contender.
Questions remain, however, as to how accepted a southerner would be under the system of rotating regional candidacies – a question that has caused deep dissatisfaction about Jonathan running for a second term on a PDP ticket.
Another possible candidate from the ACN, the reforming governor from Ekiti State, Kayode Fayemi, is respected across party lines for his efforts to economically integrate southern states. He might offer a southern Christian balance to a ticket alongside a northern Muslim.
Privately, top PDP members say the race will be close, though the party’s official position has been to show no fear.
Advances in privatising Nigeria’s power sector this year are a rare but powerful move which, if successful, could yet turn the tide in the incumbent’s favour.
Others say the new alliance will struggle to contain so many big fish in a small pond.
“Come elections and everyone will see the problems within them. They will be torn to rags because of ambitions,” said Bamanga Tukur, the PDP’s national chairman, who has likened the contest to one between superstar foot- ball striker Lionel Messi and a local club player.
The ACN’s leader, Bola Tinubu, is due in London in what may be a major profile-raising visit, addressing the UK parliament. This could be a prelude to an attempt to secure the candidacy.
Another senior PDP source said: “They will certainly be a challenge to the PDP. The group has a common enemy, which is the PDP, so that is uniting them.
“But whether in terms of ideology they are going to be the same – we have to wait until they put their manifesto out. Every Nigerian, irrespective of their political leaning, is worried about the security situation. If they have a solution, they should make that clear.”
But such refrains of bravado cannot conceal the problems that the PDP faces.
For one of the first times in its 14-year history, the PDP is home to different factions that have been unable to reach private settlements, with internal strife spilling out into the public.
One thing is sure: the gloves are already off. On a huge billboard promoting Jonathan’s leadership outside the presidential villa, in full view of security cameras trained on the tree-lined grounds, someone removed the president’s face.
Few doubt the PDP is a tottering giant, but the APC has yet to show if it can throw the punch that fells it. ●
This article was first published in the June, 2013 edition of The Africa Report, on sale at newsstands, via our print subscription or our digital edition.