In Nigeria, a Rising Opposition Alliance Challenges the Political Status Quo

7 MINS READDec 17, 2013 | 17:13 GMT
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in New York on Sept. 23.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan in New York on Sept. 23.

As Nigeria moves toward a more fluent multiparty system, one opposition party now has the numbers to challenge the status of the long-ruling People's Democratic Party in elections. The All Progressives Congress on Dec. 16 called for Nigeria's National Assembly to impeach President Goodluck Jonathan for "gross misconduct." Jonathan quickly countered by threatening treason charges against the party. 

Provided that it can hold together, the All Progressives Congress will have a significant impact on Nigeria's presidential election in April 2015. This means the People's Democratic Party can no longer take the election or its own leadership primaries for granted. Although the party has always had to balance various interests in order to gain enough votes to ensure it wins the presidency, its widespread support has historically enabled it to rotate leadership from zone to zone within Nigeria. With its dominance now in question, the party's room to maneuver will decline dramatically. The result of these political dealings could eventually be an uptick in Niger Delta militancy. 

The All Progressives Congress formed in February as a merger of the four largest opposition parties, none of which could match the national reach of the People's Democratic Party. The All Progressives Congress has a strong network of support among influential northern politicians, including former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari and other leaders of the Hausa-Fulani people. It also includes some of the country's southwestern Yoruba population, notably supporters in Lagos of the Action Congress party, which has since joined the All Progressives Congress. Their numbers, in addition to the widespread support in the north, could challenge the People's Democratic Party in open elections. (The distinction between north and south in Nigeria is relevant because of the zoning agreement, an unspoken arrangement whereby politicians in the north and south take turns ruling the country.)

However, the biggest boost for the All Progressives Congress may have come Nov. 26 when most of the members of a People's Democratic Party minority faction split off and joined the party, potentially giving the opposition group a majority in both houses of the National Assembly and a majority of state governors. The minority faction's decision followed an unsuccessful bid to force Jonathan to withdraw his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election. 

The importance of the All Progressives Congress' diverse base and early formation cannot be overstated. Many opposition alliances have tried to challenge the People's Democratic Party before cracking under pressure. However, most were thrown together at the last minute, whereas this alliance formed more than two years before the next election cycle and already has lasted longer than previous coalitions. 

Building Support

The leaders of the All Progressives Congress know they will have to secure some level of support from key political figures in all of Nigeria's regions in order to defeat Jonathan's party. Recruiting the breakaway faction of the ruling party was a key component. Two of the five governors who split from the People's Democratic Party are from the northwestern states and two others are from central states (though they are technically considered "north"). However, the remaining governor, Rotimi Amaechi of the wealthy and oil-rich southern state of Rivers, is one of Jonathan's main political rivals and could be the most significant of the new opposition governors.

When the People's Democratic Party was trying to decide who from the Niger Delta would take the vice presidency under President-elect Umaru Yaradua in 2007, all the state governors from the delta desired the position. Then-President Olusegun Obasanjo's bid for a third term was blocked, so he began searching for a weak successor whom he could control from behind the scenes. Obasanjo opposed the candidacy of then-Rivers state Gov. Peter Odili, who would probably have been too powerful and ambitious to control. Instead, Obasanjo latched onto Jonathan, then the governor of Bayelsa state. Both Yaradua and Jonathan were politically weak candidates who lacked support bases of their own and who would need Obasanjo's backing. Indeed, Obasanjo's influence in the party is still strong today.

Adding Amaechi to its ranks gives the All Progressives Congress a presence in the Niger Delta through his powerful connections and support base. It also significantly challenges any reformation process in Jonathan's party that would have enabled him to relinquish the presidency. One of the most likely options was to allow the presidency to go to someone from the north — thus securing votes from the north — while allowing the Niger Delta region to take the vice presidency. However, the most likely candidate from the delta is Amaechi.

Impeachment and Corruption

The use of impeachment and criminal charges (for treason or corruption) for personal gain is deeply embedded in Nigerian politics. Such allegations are often used to play power politics, acquire positions and remove opponents. In fact, earlier in his career, Jonathan himself ascended to the governorship of Bayelsa state because his predecessor was impeached. Jonathan has also sought to remove Amaechi — who himself became governor after his predecessor resigned over corruption charges — from his post as Rivers state governor since April. Even Obasanjo, who is no longer allied with Jonathan, faced impeachment when his political ambitions began to exceed those of his rivals.

The faction of the People's Democratic Party that broke away alongside Amaechi consisted of Jonathan's harshest critics within the party. In fact, the faction had previously floated the idea of impeachment. With a newfound majority in the National Assembly, they can bring impeachment proceedings, which require one-third support, to the floor. However, the People's Democratic Party retains enough members to prevent actual impeachment, which requires two-thirds in both houses. Still, merely beginning the impeachment process would likely discourage Jonathan from seeking re-election, just as it did with Obasanjo.

Jonathan must maintain his eligibility to run for re-election for as long as possible. Otherwise, he risks an organized removal from within the party as it moves to anoint a successor before the 2015 presidential election. To do this, Jonathan will use every tool in his arsenal — including allegations of corruption and treason — to secure more time. If Jonathan's party believes it will lose the election, he will be abandoned.

Niger Delta Oil Fields

Niger Delta Oil Fields

Regardless of Jonathan's decision, both parties will fight for support in the Niger Delta. Amaechi and the All Progressives Congress will use the region's gang and illicit trade networks, but Amaechi is the chairman of the National Governors' Forum and needs to be seen as a reliable statesman building on his work in Rivers state. Meanwhile, Jonathan might let militants increase their activity.

The All Progressives Congress is a powerful alliance between the southwest around Lagos and parts of the north — the two weakest regions for the People's Democratic Party — and offers the Niger Delta a credible vice president in Amaechi. Depending on the strength of the All Progressives Congress' presidential candidate from the north, the People's Democratic Party may not be able to craft a ticket that could win.

Nigerian parties are rarely defined by ideology; they are simply vehicles for alliances to win elections. Therefore, recent developments do not mean the People's Democratic Party cannot recover membership if the issues that divide it — namely, Jonathan — are resolved. However, depending on where the People's Democratic Party regains its membership, it could force the party to go another route and support candidates from other regions of Nigeria. Doing so would only alienate Jonathan's faction and could unravel the Jonathan-brokered amnesty agreement with the Niger Delta militants.

Whichever party wins, it must ensure that the Niger Delta region retains senior patronage and influence — this could be done with Amaechi — because if patronage is not secured, then Niger Delta militancy could rebound during the next administration. Nigeria's presidential election is 17 months away and the picture will become clearer, but upticks in militancy could be on the horizon, and the status quo of Nigeria's political environment has certainly changed.

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