Nigeria’s Ruling Party Divided as Presidential Race Heats Up

Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party is in danger of splitting over who to nominate as its candidate to run for the presidency of Africa’s top oil producer next year, Rolake Akinola and other analysts said.

“Right now there doesn’t seem to be any chance there would be consensus in the PDP,” said Akinola, a London-based analyst who has covered West Africa for Control Risks Group. “We’re going to see an increasing divide in the coming months.”

Acting President Goodluck Jonathan, a southerner who took power in February after the northern incumbent, Umaru Yar’Adua, fell ill, hasn’t ruled himself out of the race. A bid by Jonathan would run against the PDP’s policy of rotating candidates between the mainly Muslim north and Christian south for two four-year terms. Yar’Adua was in the third year of his first term when he disappeared from public view in November.

The PDP has provided the president since the West African nation emerged from military rule in 1999. Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, vies with Angola to rank as the continent’s largest oil producer, and is the fifth-biggest supplier of U.S. crude imports.

Sectarian tensions have worsened this year, with clashes between Muslims and Christians around the central city Jos having claimed hundreds of lives since January. Army officers have seized power six times since Nigeria’s independence from the U.K. in 1960, once sparking a civil war from 1967 to 1970.

Yar’Adua, 58, who was chosen by his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, won the 2007 vote, which international and local monitoring groups described as “flawed” because of cases of electoral violence, underage voting, and ballot-stuffing.

Political Process

Bismarck Rewane, the managing director of Financial Derivatives Ltd., a Lagos-based investment advisory company, said the PDP infighting may be healthy for Nigeria.

“We’re coming from a situation in which someone was anointed to one where there could be a process,” Rewane said by phone yesterday from Lagos, the commercial capital. “If the political process is seen to be fair and proper, it will help build the investment confidence in Nigeria.”

The PDP wrangling may break the party’s lock on the presidency, Emma Ezeazu, general secretary of the Alliance for Credible Elections, a coalition of groups including the Nigeria Labour Congress that is working to make Nigeria’s voting system more transparent, said by phone from Abuja on April 30.

A Jonathan candidacy would split the PDP “down the line,” Ezeazu said.

‘Intractable Crisis’

Jonathan, 52, said in an April 27 statement that the party was heading toward an “intractable crisis” because of the internal squabbling. He issued the statement after party chairman Vincent Ogbulafor suspended 19 members, including two former Senate presidents and a former speaker of the House of Representatives, for demanding changes in the way the party picks its candidates.

Ogbulafor, who said in March that the party’s candidate will come from the north, was charged by prosecutors for fraud last month on allegations dating to when he was a minister in 2001. He described the move as politically motivated.

Northerners who have said they intend to fight for the nomination include Ibrahim Babangida, 68, Nigeria’s military ruler between 1985 and 1993, and Atiku Abubakar, 63, who served as vice president from 1999 to 2007.

The elections are due to be held in either January or April, depending on whether the legislature passes changes to the nation’s electoral laws.

New Cabinet

Since assuming power, Jonathan named a new cabinet and removed Maurice Iwu as chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, which oversaw the 2007 vote.

Jonathan may be able to build enough support to win the nomination if he carries through on his pledges to fight corruption, clean up the electoral system and make the running of the oil and gas industry more transparent, said Akinola.

“Even some of the northern political elite are not against Jonathan,” she said in an April 30 telephone interview.

As an ethnic Ijaw who is the first person from the Niger River delta to become Nigeria’s leader, Jonathan probably stands a better chance than most other potential candidates to calm the rebellion in the oil-producing region.

Armed attacks since 2006 hit installations of companies such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp. and cut production more than 28 percent. The rebels have reduced their operations since Yar’Adua introduced an amnesty for the militants last year.

Nigeria’s oil production rose to more than 2 million barrels a day last month from 1.75 million barrels a day in July, according to Bloomberg data.

People in the delta resent the perceived domination of political power by northerners who have produced most of Nigeria’s military and civilian rulers since independence.

“If Jonathan says he won’t run, he will have a lot of explaining to do,” Ankio Briggs, who has represented the delta’s main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, in talks with the government, said in an April 30 telephone interview.

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