By The Economist
The power struggle that has led to a split in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) suggests that the run-up to the country’s presidential, parliamentary and state elections, due in 2015, will be extremely tense. The split is weakening the ruling party and threatens its chances of victory in 2015, particularly as the main opposition parties have merged to challenge the PDP at the forthcoming polls. Given the tensions building, the split, combined with the struggle to lead Nigeria in 2015, will be a stern test of the resilience of the country’s 14‑year‑old democracy. Various attempts to mend the rift in the PDP have failed since seven of its state governors and the former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, walked out of a special party convention on August 31st to form a splinter party, known as New PDP, though the splinter group appears to be losing with losses in the courts and non-recognition by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC). President Goodluck Jonathan has met with the rebel governors of the states of Jigawa, Kwara, Niger, Sokoto, Rivers, Kano and Adamawa in another effort to find solutions to the crisis, but there is little to suggest a compromise has been found.
Ethnic and regional undertones
The underlying cause of the PDP split is political jostling ahead of the party’s primaries, which are expected to take place next year. The disaffected state governors, all but one (Rivers State Governor Rotimi Amaechi) of whom are northerners, accuse the PDP leadership of scheming and breaking party rules to maintain control of the party machinery to enable them to support handpicked aspirants for the 2015 elections, including Mr Jonathan. Many northern leaders in the PDP are opposed to Jonathan, a southerner, seeking re-election, largely based on their belief that it should be the turn of the north to rule Nigeria for the next term at least.
The prospect of the PDP breaking up and enabling the emergence of a more competitive political arena could be a positive development for the evolution of democracy in a nation that has had only one party in power since the return to civilian rule in 1999. However, the danger in the division of the PDP stems from the ethnic and regional undertones, the roots of which are in an arguably undemocratic power-sharing arrangement that caters for the political ambitions of ethnically based politicians rather than the country’s need for competent leadership. Matching this flaw in the political environment is the tendency of those at the top of the party to use their offices to try to hold on to power.
The crisis in the PDP coincides with Nigeria entering the run-up to the 2015 elections at a time when the nation faces grave security challenges from Islamist insurgents fighting to topple any secular government system. This is also a period when Nigeria needs to sustain growing investor interest in its economy. Signs of serious political instability could unravel such vital development.
Controversial elections are nothing new
Pre-election wrangling is not new in Africa’s most populous and ethnically diverse nation. The run-up to every major election since the end of military rule in 1999 has been marred by some level of political dispute and undemocratic behaviour by some politicians, often resulting in violence. In the lead-up to the 1999 polls northern politicians in the PDP apparently entered into a gentleman’s accord with their southern colleagues to refrain from contesting the party’s presidential ticket and to back a southern candidate, a former military ruler, Olusegun Obasanjo, in return for power reverting to the north after he had served the permitted two terms in office. This power-rotation formula was seen as being helpful for the new democracy, as the major bone of contention in Nigerian politics had been that the culturally conservative north, which has a larger population and dominated the army, had held power for most of the time since independence.
The months leading up to the 2003 elections were marred by political violence, including kidnappings and assassinations, by supporters of rival parties and candidates. For example, some PDP politicians in the Niger Delta sponsored criminal gangs to help them rig elections. Some of these thugs later became militants fighting for a greater share of Nigeria’s oil wealth, with dire consequences for the oil industry and government revenue. Ahead of the 2007 ballots the PDP was plunged into crisis when Obasanjo allegedly sought an amendment of the constitution to enable him to serve a third term and then blocked the bid of his deputy, Atiku, to contest in the PDP’s presidential primaries. Mr Atiku, who had opposed the third-term campaign, and some of his followers left the PDP and contested the elections on the platform of a newly created party. He rejoined the PDP in 2010.