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Apr 16, 2011 | 18:55 GMT

7 mins read

Special Series: Nigeria's Elections

Editor's Note: This is the first installment in an ongoing series focusing on Nigerian elections, the politico-militancy dynamic of the country's Niger Delta and proposed reforms of the country's energy sector. Nigeria's presidential election began April 16; gubernatorial and local government elections will follow on April 26. Owing to the power of incumbency, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is in a strong position to win re-election, and his membership in the dominant ethnicity in the Niger Delta region means he will be able to keep violence in check in the oil-rich area. The question now becomes how the 2015 election will turn out, an election whose calculus will be defined by the so-called "zoning agreement" hashed out in the late 1990s.

Elective Office and the Power of Patronage

Winning the presidency gives the candidate the power of patronage on a scale of billions of dollars that he can use to reward his home region and supporters. Meanwhile, a state governorship can give control of a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars per year and up to in excess of a billion dollars for governors of leading oil-producing states. Even local government offices provide opportunities for patronage far more lucrative than ordinary jobs in Nigeria, a country of 150 million people that struggles to generate gainful employment for many. Winning is not easy, however. Competition is robust among experienced and aspiring politicians, who are guided not by ideology but by power and prestige. (There is actually little ideology among mainstream Nigerian political parties.) The ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) has governed the country since its transition from military to civilian rule in 1999. The PDP is an umbrella organization incorporating disparate groups from across the diverse country. If one wants to access national patronage or be a clear member of the winning team, one must join the PDP. President Goodluck Jonathan, who is seeking re-election, is the most prominent PDP member. An ethnic Ijaw from the oil-producing Bayelsa state, Jonathan has held office as a member of the PDP since 1998. He rose from deputy governor and then governor of Bayelsa state to vice president, acting president and now president of Nigeria. He became president after former President Umaru Yaradua died of heart-related problems in May 2010. The PDP does not dominate all Nigerian states, however. Lagos state and the country's South-West Zone, where the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) holds the governorship and stands a strong chance of re-election, in general are outside of PDP sway. The ACN presidential candidate is Nuhu Ribadu, the former chairman of Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The other main opposition party is the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), whose presidential candidate is former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, who governed from 1983-1985. Buhari finds his main support base from Muslim and ethnic Hausa-Fulani citizens of the country's North-West Zone, where he hails from. The PDP enjoys the advantages of incumbency and the depth of organization and entrenched interests that the more recent Ribadu and Buhari campaigns lack. Any number of aspiring politicians can articulate a sophisticated policy platform, but the ability to dole out patronage makes or breaks a Nigerian politician — and later guides his or her policymaking.

The Zoning Agreement Going Forward

Yaradua's health issues complicated a power-sharing agreement that Nigeria's political and military elite brokered in the late 1990s during the country's transition to democracy. Called a zoning agreement, it was an understanding within the PDP that all national political offices would be shared at different times among the country's six geopolitical regions, or "zones." This saw power distributed among the country's elite, avoiding consolidating power in just one region. It also provided for the distribution of resources between the north and south. The deal proved a pragmatic way to manage tensions resulting from the challenges of governing Africa's most populous country, which comprises some 250 ethnic groups who do not necessarily consider being Nigerian as their primary identity. (click here to enlarge image) Jonathan, for example, belongs to the Ijaw, the dominant ethnic group of the Niger Delta. This region had been neglected in Nigerian national power plays until he became president. The Ijaw in particular and the Niger Delta (also referred to in Nigeria as the South-South Zone) more generally have struggled to achieve power on a national level. Throughout Nigeria's post-independence history, the area sat on the sidelines while the country's three dominant regions and groups — the North, the South-West and the South-East, generally populated by the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo ethnic groups respectively — jockeyed for material and political gain. Jonathan's rise disrupted the zoning agreement. Had Yaradua not died, under the agreement, he would have been supported for a second term as president that would have run from 2011-2015; Jonathan would have continued to serve as his vice president. Jonathan's assumption of the presidency deprived northerners of five of the eight years that they were entitled to under the agreement. Though the break in the zoning agreement could trigger politically motivated violence, northern political elites may yet emerge in an advantageous position. When he became president, Jonathan selected Namadi Sambo, a former governor of Kaduna state in the North-West Zone, to be his vice president. As such, Sambo will be the front-runner to succeed Jonathan in 2015 — assuming Jonathan keeps his promise to serve only one full term. Should Jonathan change his mind, perhaps caving in to pressure from his supporters, it would be politically difficult for him or another southerner to win the presidential nomination in 2015. Should Jonathan step down in 2015 as planned and the two terms foreseen by the zoning agreement stand, Sambo will govern as president from 2015-2019 and 2019-2023. The South-South will bow out of national office in 2015, and the front-runner for the vice presidential slot will probably be someone from the South-East Zone. Given the advantages of incumbency, Jonathan is well positioned to remain Nigerian president through 2015, something not expected when he was first elected to national office in 2007. Under the previous arrangement, his support base in the Niger Delta would have had to wait a generation to hold the presidency. Militancy in the Niger Delta is therefore not necessary to promote the political interests of the Niger Delta — and could actually undermine Jonathan's candidacy and credibility. Not surprisingly, Jonathan's colleagues at the state level from his home region — the governors of the primary oil-producing states, Delta, Bayelsa and Rivers — all support the PDP re-election effort. These incumbent governors do not need to resort to militancy to secure their political ambitions. Instead, they must support Jonathan's candidacy and keep militancy in check. The Niger Delta region has ceased to be a national pariah under Jonathan and his predecessor Yaradua, but Jonathan's relationships with the militants give him the unique power to manage tensions in his home region and safeguard oil production in the area. This is not to say that there are not disputes, rivalries and related political violence in Nigeria and especially the Niger Delta. But the drop in militant attacks against energy infrastructure stands testament to the government's ability to keep a lid on violence. Jonathan is in fact likely to keep militancy in the Niger Delta in check during his entire term. In addition to Jonathan's support from the South-South, his selection of Sambo as his vice president and possible successor undermines the Buhari-led CPC opposition in the country's North-West Zone. Whatever grassroots support Buhari and the CPC hope to gain in the North-West will be doubly difficult. Sambo not only enjoys the full patronage and perks of the incumbency provided to him by the PDP, he is also the heir apparent on behalf of the region that would lose out on the 2015-2019-2023 terms (to the South-East) should Buhari win the election. The question moving forward has thus moved to what political rivalries will emerge in 2015, and what means will be employed to secure the claim of a certain region to the presidency.

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