Nigeria’s Ruling Party Faces Perilous Future

By Azubuike Ishiekwene 

LAGOS—Africa's largest political party faces its biggest test yet. Nigeria's ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which not only calls itself the continent's largest but boasts it will reign for 60 years, is no longer sure of tomorrow.

Though the party made some gains last year when a few stalwarts from the opposition defected to its ranks, the gains have been eroding. In the last month, courts in the nation’s southwest removed two PDP governors on grounds of fraud in the 2007 election, and ordered a repeat of the election in Delta State, a key stronghold of the ruling party.

Any hopes that the party would mend quickly and present a united front in next year's general elections were dashed when four aspirants to the presidential ticket, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former military President Ibrahim Babangida teamed up under a northern elders' group to anoint Abubakar as the PDP's “northern”candidate.

The decision by the elders' group to find a northern candidate followed months of bickering over claims that there had been a zoning agreement within the PDP to retain power in the north for eight years. The agreement broke down after the death of former President Umar Yar'Adua in May, and the decision of his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner, to run for office.

Minutes after Abubakar was announced as the consensus candidate of the northern elders' group on Monday, my phone rang. But I could barely hear the voice on the other end of the line. The caller's voice was drowning in the surge of excitement by Abubakar supporters in the hall. Almost immediately, a friend who was with me when the news broke put a call through to the camp of President Jonathan. "You will not believe what I'm hearing," he said, rocking with laughter as he reported on the call he’d just made. "You’d think that the president himself has just been re-elected. The guys have gone crazy."

But why? The thinking in pro-Jonathan circles is that the only thing worse than a political suicide is fielding Abubakar in a two-way presidential contest for the PDP ticket against Jonathan, coming up in January. If the president seemed to have seriously damaged his future prospects by his unfortunate comments absolving the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta of complicity in the October 1 bombings in Abuja, the northern elders' group may have provided him his resurrection by choosing Abubakar as his opponent.

After the bruising William Jefferson corruption trials in the United States (where Abubakar's name featured prominently), the mudslinging during former President Olusegun Obasanjo's last days in office, the wilderness years outside the ruling party, and a string of promiscuous affairs with the opposition, is Abubakar really worth more than a passing thought as a presidential contender? What better opponent could Jonathan have wished for in the contest to lead the PDP ticket?

The vicious press campaign that the northern candidates had launched in the lead up to the selection of Abubakar as the northern candidate, and with Ibrahim Babangida feeling particularly done in, any possibility of post-contest co-operation was ruled out.

Still, while Jonathan's camp rejoiced, the mood in Abubakar's camp was also jubilant for a different, if exactly opposite, set of reasons. Where others thought that the positioning of Abubakar as the northern candidate would damage his national appeal, his supporters felt it had, at least, guaranteed a foothold after a long spell in the political wilderness. His incremental success, which began with the former vice president's re-absorption into the ruling party, had not only revitalized his camp, but had also created an atmosphere of miracles, a feeling of anything is possible.

Including beating Jonathan, the incumbent president, in the party primaries and, possibly, becoming the country's next president? In a post on Tuesday, a blogger, Mobolaji Aluko, observed, "If Team Goodluck is jubilating over Atiku's consensus, they must know something I don't know. This is because Atiku is a political chess player who plots one step before another and will blindside GEJ [Goodluck Jonathan] for the primaries before GEJ knows it. GEJ is no Olusegun Obasanjo…his confidence often rattles the opposition, and he knows where all the dead bodies are buried in the PDP….[So in soccer terms] until the whistle is blown, you better keep playing even if you are two or three goals ahead."

In a country where matches are won before they are even played, what happens before the game is often just as important as what happens during the game. Since Monday when Abubakar was announced as the "consensus candidate" there have been strenuous efforts within the PDP and outside, especially among other non-PDP northern aspirants, to make the point that he is the candidate of the elders' committee and not the candidate of the  north. Two other non-PDP northern candidates—former anti-corruption czar, Nuhu Ribadu and a former military head of state, Muhammadu Buhari—have had particularly hard time making their voices heard since Abubakar was anointed.

Yet, the more Abubakar is dismissed as a candidate without a chance and the poster boy of a discredited past, the more he appears determined to prove his critics wrong.

There is something about his odyssey that reminds me of South Africa's Jacob Zuma or Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, only without the powers. While the former survived a spate of financial and sex scandals and went ahead to topple Thabo Mbeki, the latter thrives on sleaze and controversies, yet remains the shame that Italy is happy to live with. There are few countries in Europe where the prime minister could, in response to a charge that he slept with an under-age girl, say something like, "Why should I pay for sex when the fun of it is actually in chasing the one you love?"

Nigeria does not require a new creative process to manufacture its own Zumas and Berlusconis. The line-up for the 2011 election is already loaded with such men. If one aspirant thinks that his opponent is a worse alternative, however, it's simply because each is measuring himself by his own standards.

They will be mistaken to think that after years of rigged polls and brinkmanship, voters still do not care. When the aspirants have finished with themselves and their parties they will have vigilant voters, aggrieved losers and radical courts to contend with.

Azubuike Ishiekwene, a member of the editorial board of World Policy Journal, was a former Editor of Punch, Nigeria's largest privately owned daily newspaper. He is a member of the board of the World Editor's Forum and a part-time journalism teacher at the University of Lagos.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of South Africa Kicks.

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