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Nigeria’s Babangida threatens to quit ruling party

By on December 8, 2010

Former Nigerian military ruler Ibrahim Babangida threatened on Tuesday to quit the ruling party before elections next April, underlining deep divisions over the candidacy of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan’s bid for the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation is controversial because he is a southerner and inherited office earlier this year when late President Umaru Yar’Adua, a northerner, died part way through his first term.

The constitution of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) refers to a “policy of rotation and zoning” which has in practice meant that the presidency has switched between the mostly-Muslim north and largely-Christian south every two terms.

The PDP’s candidate has won every election in Nigeria since the end of military rule just over a decade ago, but disagreement over who should run on its ticket in 2011 risks splitting the party and leaving the presidential race wide open.

Babangida said in a letter to PDP chairman Okwesilieze Nwodo that Jonathan’s candidacy was a clear breach of the zoning deal.

“If the party has become so helpless in the face of these gross violations of its own constitution…then many of us shall have no alternative but to reconsider our continued membership of the party,” Babangida said.

History has always favoured the incumbent in Nigeria’s patronage-based political system, but Jonathan faces a tough battle at the PDP primaries, due by mid-January.

Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar has been picked by an elite group of northern politicians as a “consensus northern candidate” to challenge him for the nomination.

Abubakar was chosen over four other northern aspirants for the ruling party ticket, including Babangida, former national security adviser Aliyu Gusau and Kwara state governor Bukola Saraki.

Babangida and Gusau quickly congratulated Abubakar on his selection as the main PDP challenger to Jonathan, but analysts have questioned whether the “northern consensus” would hold.

“Babangida’s comments are a warning shot — a break-up of the PDP is a real possibility if Jonathan wins the primaries or even decides to continue to contest,” said one Nigerian political analyst, who asked not to be named.

“It also suggests he has little faith in Atiku.”

The April polls are shaping up to Nigeria’s most unpredictable in recent memory because of the uncertainty in the ruling party. Ask three Nigerians how they will end and the response is at least three equally well-argued scenarios.

Key will be the state governors, who form a powerful caucus in the PDP. They could back Jonathan, Abubakar or a third candidate to try to resolve the divisions. Or northern factions in the PDP could split and mount a challenge at the polls.

Whatever the outcome, the final victor could find himself saddled with legal disputes and emerge with a weak mandate, hampering his administration’s ability to push through badly needed reforms in sub-Saharan Africa’s second-biggest economy.


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