Sep 6, 2013 | 10:06 GMT

6 mins read

Nigeria's Ruling Party Splinters

Nigeria's Ruling Party Splinters

A division between the two largest factions of Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party has grown as it debates whether current Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan should seek re-election in 2015. A group of the party's senior figures, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, walked out of the party's mini-congress over the weekend and spent the next few days garnering support among other party members who oppose Jonathan's potential re-election bid. This group is now calling itself the New People's Democratic Party.

Though such divisions have happened before, the most recent rift is the result of a 15-year-old power-sharing agreement among Nigeria's regions that is being strained ahead of the national elections. Jonathan did not take office as a result of the power-sharing agreement; he became president after the death of President Umaru Yaradua (a northerner) in 2010, which means that Jonathan, a southerner, took northern Nigeria's "turn." The New People's Democratic Party is pushing for Jonathan to step down in 2015 to comply with the agreement and return the presidency to the north. The New People's Democratic Party is not likely to break away and create a new political party, but it will remain opposed to Jonathan as its members position themselves as candidates for the People's Democratic Party leadership. 

Nigeria is a highly diverse country, with dozens of ethnic groups comprising its population of 163 million. Several of these ethnicities were rival empires or sultanates prior to European colonization (and remain so to this day), and these divisions define Nigeria's political landscape. For example, the northwest historically was dominated by the Sokoto Caliphate, which largely comprised Hausa Muslims — rivals to the Kanuri Muslims in the northeast in current-day Borno state. The southwest is dominated by the Yoruba ethnic group, and the Niger Delta region has been split among several ethnic groups, including the Igbo and Jonathan's small Ijaw group. No individual ethnic group is large enough to supplant alliances of other groups, but alliances between two or three of them would constitute a majority of the country's population.

Ethnic Groups in Nigeria

Map - Nigeria's Ethnic Groups

As a result, Nigeria's political system can only be stable and functional when a power-sharing government model is in place. If one ethnic group becomes too powerful, it will not have the strength to withstand a united opposition. Nigeria's political elite realized this when, after nearly four decades of endless coups, military dictatorships and one civil war, the country transitioned to a civilian democratic form of government in the 1990s. The People's Democratic Party grew out of the dialogue on this issue and formed an power-sharing zoning agreement that rotated Nigeria's presidency, vice presidency and other senior patronage appointments through six geopolitical zones. This coalition also allowed the party to have a large enough base to ensure that its candidate would also win the general election. 

Out of Turn

The power-sharing mechanism worked initially. Olusegun Obasanjo, an ethnic Yoruba and Christian from the southwest, won the presidency in 1999 and 2003, and the vice presidency was given to Abubakar, an ethnic Hausa and Muslim from the northeast. For the 2007 and 2011 election cycles, the presidency was to go to Yaradua, an ethnic Fulani and Muslim from the northwest, while Jonathan, a politician from the Niger Delta, would be vice president.

The Niger Delta region has a great deal of influence within the People's Democratic Party and the government because of its importance to Nigeria's oil and gas industry. The region is a hotbed of rivalries and factions and has a long history of internal battles between politicians who want to use the Niger Delta as a springboard into national politics. Jonathan is the region's pre-eminent politician and thus faces rivalries in his own backyard. Several different politicians, such as former Rivers state Gov. Peter Odili and former Bayelsa state Gov. Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, wanted the vice presidency in 2007. Jonathan, the governor of Bayelsa state at the time, was selected in part because he did not have the kind of political backing throughout the south, coming from the much smaller Ijaw ethnic group, that would challenge Yaradua's authority (or Obasanjo's, as the former president wanted to rule from behind the scenes after retiring).

Nigerian Geopolitical Zones and Elections

Nigerian Geopolitical Zones and Elections

Yaradua died of natural causes before the end of his first term, making Jonathan the constitutionally recognized successor to the presidency, though this ran counter to the power-sharing agreement that required a northerner to retain the presidency. Jonathan was able to capitalize on the timing of Yaradua's death and take the presidency in elections in 2011, though he was "out of turn."

In general, the north lost its turn at controlling the government and receiving the patronage that comes with power. Since Jonathan's election in 2011, northern politicians largely have discredited Jonathan's right to run again in 2015, arguing that he is already into his second term and that he usurped a term in office that was set aside for another zone. On the other hand, Jonathan's supporters argue that he is eligible to run for re-election since he was only elected president once and is thus in compliance with the constitutional two-term limit.

Jonathan's Difficult Position

Although breaking down Nigeria into just the north and the south is overly simplistic, doing so reveals two clear patterns. The north does not have the economic resources that the south does — namely, oil production in the Niger Delta and an economic hub in Lagos. Thus, the politicians and business leaders and their associates from the north must use their political status to control the government and use that power as a means to "properly" redistribute Nigeria's wealth among its people. This is why regaining the presidency is important for the north and why the New People's Democratic Party has the largest support base among politicians from the north. The goal of the New People's Democratic Party is not so different from that of the alliance that was formed by the three largest opposition parties in February: blocking Jonathan's re-election bid. That alliance is also backed by key northern politicians with political pedigrees that could make them viable alternatives to Jonathan in a national election should the People's Democratic Party continue to fracture.

However, opposition parties have never really challenged the People's Democratic Party on the national level, and their alliances often fall apart. The New People's Democratic Party hopes to gain enough of a quorum within the party to oppose Jonathan's re-election bid but keep the People's Democratic Power in power under new leadership. This would enable the party to continue reaping the benefits of incumbency and maintain the party infrastructure that has emerged as a result of the party's continuous rule since 1999.

For the Niger Delta, retaining the presidency is not necessarily an imperative. The Niger Delta retains an effective veto power in national politics because of its militant insurgency, which is capable of destroying the region's energy infrastructure should its interests be entirely discarded. All of this can be achieved with the vice presidency instead, just as it was when Jonathan was vice president. Niger Delta politicians throwing their support behind the New People's Democratic Party are hoping to be vice presidential candidates. Already Jonathan has cracked down on Rotimi Amaechi, the current governor of the powerful Rivers state, who is now backing the New People's Democratic Party. Amaechi's term as governor will end in 2015, and his promotion to the vice presidency can only come at Jonathan's expense within the power-sharing agreement. 

Notably, the New People's Democratic Party faction has not split from the party, nor has it joined the opposition alliance. Rather, it has opted to work within the People's Democratic Party and find enough support to block another presidential bid from Jonathan. The People's Democratic Party is still a household name in Nigeria and has grassroots machinery and patronage — advantages the party does not want to give up.

The Ijaw do not want lose their influence in national politics, but they are not entirely unified in supporting Jonathan, and he does not command loyalty from other politicians. Jonathan benefited as much from Niger Delta militancy as the militants did from his support of the "cash for peace" amnesty program. Any other Niger Delta politician guaranteeing similar patronage will get the militants' support, and the next president, whether from the north or south, will know that the amnesty program will need to continue. 

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