In Nigeria’s presidential primary, signs of a regional split

In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party decided on their candidate for the spring presidential election — the accidental incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who took over when his former boss died in office last spring. The markets were pleased, and almost no one was particularly surprised. Jonathan is now ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party decided on their candidate for the spring presidential election -- the accidental incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who took over when his former boss died in office last spring. The markets were pleased, and almost no one was particularly surprised. Jonathan is now a shoo-in favorite to win the presidency for another term. If only it were so simple.

Many a pundit has rehashed the point of contention going into yesterday's primary: The party's gentleman's agreement to rotate the office between north and south every eight years should have shoehorned a northerner into the candidacy this year -- but Jonathan is from the south. So not surprisingly, Jonathan was up against a popular northern politician for the nomination, a former vice president, Atiku Abubakar. That Jonathan won is no small testament to the political lobbying he has done in recent weeks (but also likely to the fact that the man in power controls the party machinery). The numbers look pretty convincing -- 2,736 delegates voted for Jonathan while just 807 voted for Abubakar.

Dig down at the state level, however, and you'll see the rift -- particularly in the country's middle belt, where north and south meet (and where intercommunal violence has erupted in recent months). A good example is Bauchi state, where Jonathan won by a margin of 2 votes -- 46 to 44. In northern Zamfara state, Jonathan won just one-tenth of Abubakar's share.

In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party decided on their candidate for the spring presidential election — the accidental incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who took over when his former boss died in office last spring. The markets were pleased, and almost no one was particularly surprised. Jonathan is now a shoo-in favorite to win the presidency for another term. If only it were so simple.

Many a pundit has rehashed the point of contention going into yesterday’s primary: The party’s gentleman’s agreement to rotate the office between north and south every eight years should have shoehorned a northerner into the candidacy this year — but Jonathan is from the south. So not surprisingly, Jonathan was up against a popular northern politician for the nomination, a former vice president, Atiku Abubakar. That Jonathan won is no small testament to the political lobbying he has done in recent weeks (but also likely to the fact that the man in power controls the party machinery). The numbers look pretty convincing — 2,736 delegates voted for Jonathan while just 807 voted for Abubakar.

Dig down at the state level, however, and you’ll see the rift — particularly in the country’s middle belt, where north and south meet (and where intercommunal violence has erupted in recent months). A good example is Bauchi state, where Jonathan won by a margin of 2 votes — 46 to 44. In northern Zamfara state, Jonathan won just one-tenth of Abubakar’s share.

Abubakar will likely still run — just under the umbrella of another party organization. The question is, will the north support him? And will they protest should he lose? Religion and location (which largely correspond, thanks to colonial rulers’ partitions) have long been used to stoke violence in Nigeria.

Of late, the stakes have risen, however; violent groups in both regions, north and south, have taken to bomb attacks to make their point. On New Year’s Eve, a bomb rocked army barracks in Abuja — an attack that the government initially blamed on northern Islamist extremists. Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region (where Jonathan is from) also exploded a car bomb in Abuja last fall. 

No doubt, it’s the beginning of a very interesting election season.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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