A President's Aspirations Threaten Nigeria's Feeble Democracy

6 MINS READNov 12, 2014 | 22:18 GMT
A President's Aspirations Threaten Nigeria's Feeble Democracy
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan (L) celebrates the country's 54th Independence anniversary in Lagos with Acting Police chief Suleiman Abba (C) and Airforce chief Air Vice Marshall Adesola Amosu (R).

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan declared Nov. 11 that he would stand for re-election in February 2015. However, Jonathan's re-election bid, if successful, could destabilize Nigeria by effectively reversing the country's recent efforts to democratize. Backlash against Jonathan has led to a split within the ruling party and is dividing the population, which is already grappling with region-specific security and economic concerns.

Jonathan first became president in 2010 when, as vice president, he assumed the role of the presidency upon the death of then-President Umaru Yaradua. Jonathan was officially elected president in 2011, leaving it up to interpretation whether he has served one or two terms. Jonathan's supporters argue he is eligible for what they determine would be his second term; opponents argue Jonathan is verging on a third term in violation of Nigeria's Constitution, which permits only two presidential terms. The controversy led some members of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) to defect to the main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), which is more of an alternative party than one ideologically opposed to the PDP.

Because Jonathan's opposition has been consolidated within the APC, he will likely face little to no competition from within his own ranks. Furthermore, the PDP is also allegedly counting on the fact that Jonathan's bid is unlikely to be challenged in court, given the short time between his announcement and the February elections. Even if expedited, such a challenge would not make it through the courts in time to make a difference.

However, the issue is deeper than whether Jonathan is elected for a second or third term. Fundamentally, Jonathan's re-election bid is about Nigeria's efforts to prevent narrow interest groups from monopolizing power in the country. Much of Nigeria's history since independence from the United Kingdom in 1960 has been marked by instability resulting from competing interest groups — mainly from within the military — making power grabs. Nigeria's democratic transition in 1999 sought to end these disruptive power grabs by incorporating a power-sharing model in the country's new democratic constitution. Essentially, the model enabled leaders from different regions to rotate the country's top political positions, including the presidency, to ensure all regions of the country had limited control.

This system, however, is being threatened by the fractured PDP that gave birth to a two-party system. In the future, the PDP and APC, parties of similar electoral weight, will likely run candidates from different regions of Nigeria, potentially leading to voting along regional lines. In the past, the PDP consolidated its dominance by spreading candidates from across Nigeria in top government positions. Now that there are two strong parties, they will have to compete with one another for regional votes — a situation that could create regional divisions over the long term.

A Monopoly on Power

If Jonathan is elected for another term, he and his supporters — who are predominantly from his home region, the oil producing Niger Delta — would hold the presidency for approximately 10 years, on top of the close to three years Jonathan served as vice president.

Jonathan was never intended to be president when he was elected vice president in 2007. According to the power-sharing formula that the PDP negotiated in 1999, Jonathan should have represented the Niger Delta region as vice president, funneling a modest amount of patronage to his home region from 2007 to 2015. Yaradua's northern region would have controlled Nigeria's federal government patronage networks for that period before handing over the presidency to another region — probably the South-East region — through the 2015 elections. But Jonathan's succession to the presidency following Yaradua's death and his subsequent political maneuverings could give the Niger Delta region control of the presidency, with all its patronage networks, through 2019.

The Niger Delta, Nigeria's most important oil-producing region, is content with this scenario. Moreover, several militant groups, including the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta and the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force, are generally supportive of Jonathan and have said they will resume their destabilizing militancy campaign were Jonathan blocked from a successful re-election campaign.

To Jonathan's opponents, however, especially those in northern Nigeria who believe Jonathan usurped their rightful term, another Jonathan presidential term is troubling to say the least. In a region lacking meaningful economic resources — in stark contrast to the Niger Delta — the north depends on control over the government for access to economic resources. Being denied a return to the presidency severely undermines the economic interests of northern Nigerian politicians. Given the competition between the Niger Delta and northern politicians, Nigeria's South-West region may become increasingly important as the two parties appeal to politicians and patronage networks for support.

Oil and Militancy

Boko Haram is another concern for the north. Northern politicians have allegedly used Boko Haram for political ends, much as Niger Delta politicians, including Jonathan himself, have used Niger Delta militants. While these allegations are difficult to prove, several cases indicate that northern politicians have at times found common ground with Boko Haram, or have been blackmailed into supporting them. If Jonathan is re-elected, it will undermine the political aspirations of northern politicians, severely diminishing any motivation to cooperate with the Jonathan administration.

This disaffection among northern politicians could increase support for Boko Haram. At the very least, it will limit the willingness of northerners to help Jonathan deal with the militants, who can be expected to maintain a high tempo of operations because of opposition to the Jonathan administration. Another Jonathan victory could also alienate a large swath of the northern population: for example the Hausa-Fulani in the North-Central and North-West regions who ideologically oppose Boko Haram but who have not resorted to violence or militancy thus far. A turn to militancy by this group would have much broader appeal because of its wider ethnic support base. Conversely, Boko Haram's Kanuri ethnic base, which originates from the North-East, is much smaller and therefore less appealing.

Furthermore, the oil and natural gas sector will suffer minor setbacks, no matter the election results. So long as Boko Haram is contained in northern Nigeria, its attacks will not disrupt the country's oil and natural gas production. And so long as Jonathan is re-elected, Niger Delta militants will not disrupt the oil and natural gas sector. The energy industry may, however, be indirectly affected by the legislative consequences of what is expected to be a tight election, whether Jonathan wins or not. A divided legislative branch will make it difficult to pass bills, including the controversial Petroleum Industry Bill — meant to define legislative reforms of Nigeria's petroleum industry — further delaying investments in the country's petroleum industry. While some investment will still occur, regulatory uncertainty will be a difficult limitation to overcome even if Jonathan is re-elected.

Regardless of who wins the presidency in February, the country will continue to face economic and security challenges. However, if Jonathan is re-elected, it could prove disruptive to the democratic tradition and power-sharing initiatives that emerged from Nigerian politics over the last decade and a half.

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