Jonathan Risks Clashes in Oil-Rich Nigeria Vote Bid

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Photographer: Remy de la Mauviniere/AFP/Getty Images

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan risks sectarian clashes when he announces whether he will seek election: in the Muslim north if he does, and in his native oil- rich Niger River delta in the south if he doesn’t.

Unrest in the delta may jeopardize oil output in Nigeria, Africa’s biggest producer and the fifth-largest source of crude to the U.S. At least 14,000 people have died in ethnic and religious violence since 1999, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.

“Jonathan’s delta constituency could interpret even a voluntary decision not to run as a concerted northern attempt to block him, and this could spark unrest,” said Rolake Akinola, an analyst at New York-based Eurasia Group.

Jonathan has pushed to end the state electricity monopoly and improve transport since taking office in May after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua. A four-year term would let the 52-year-old leader complete those and other programs, enabling Nigeria to reach its “full potential,” said Alan Cameron, a London-based analyst at Business Monitor International.

“Based on the progress of his first months in office, Jonathan seems more capable of doing so than his predecessors,” he said. “If these reforms did come to pass, then we believe that Nigeria could grow at an annual rate of 10 percent-plus.”

Nigeria’s $169-billion economy, Africa’s second biggest after South Africa, grew 7.2 percent in the first quarter and 7.7 percent in the second, the government said in July. Growth in 2009 was 3 percent, according to the African Development Bank.

Moving Up

A decision by Jonathan to run may split the ruling People’s Democratic Party because it would breach an unwritten accord that the presidency rotate between northerners and southerners after two terms. Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, died from an unspecified illness at the age of 58 three years into his first four-year term.

Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw with a doctorate degree in zoology, is a Christian from the southeastern delta, where most of Nigeria’s oil is pumped. Before the 2007 election he was governor of Bayelsa state in the Niger River delta.

Yar’Adua’s southern predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, ruled for two terms. No one from the delta has led the country since independence from the U.K. in 1960.

Civil War

Disputes arising from elections five years after independence sparked sectarian clashes that triggered the country’s first coup in 1966 and civil war a year later in which more than 1 million people died, as the oil-rich southeast tried to secede as the Republic of Biafra. The war ended with Biafra’s defeat in 1970.

Jonathan was vice president when the Yar’Adua administration secured a cease-fire in the delta last year after offering amnesty to fighters whose attacks on oil installations cut output by half in July 2009 from a peak of 2.5 million barrels per day at the end of 2005.

Militants in the region are more likely to achieve their goal of gaining greater local control over energy resources if Jonathan retains high office, Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, a rebel who led an uprising in 2004 before disarming, was quoted as saying on state radio last month.

Nigerian Taliban

Any clashes in the north may be similar to those in July 2009 led by an Islamic militant group that styles itself on Afghanistan’s Taliban, said Bismarck Rewane, chief executive officer of Lagos-based Financial Derivatives Co. About 700 people died. In March, 380 people were killed in the central Plateau state when Muslim herders attacked Christian villages.

“If they protest, Jonathan can’t turn a blind eye,” Rewane said. “He’ll have to send in troops to quell them.”

Jonathan will announce his bid after Ramadan, Mohammed Abba-Aji, an adviser to the president, said in an interview with the Lagos-based Vanguard newspaper on Aug. 25. Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, probably will end around Sept. 10. More than two-thirds of the governors of Nigeria’s 36 states back Jonathan, Abba-Aji said.

Ibrahim Babangida, Nigeria’s former military ruler, and ex-Vice President Atiku Abubakar, both northerners, say they will seek the ruling-party nomination.

“The northern claim to this presidency is so unchallengeable,” Adamu Ciroma, who served as finance minister under Obasanjo, said in an interview in Leadership, an Abuja- based newspaper, on Aug. 20. “Without a stable political situation and harmonious relationship and without giving the people of all parts of the country a sense of involvement, this country may not progress.”


Oil generates more than 90 percent of Nigeria’s export earnings and 16 percent of its gross domestic product. Agriculture is the biggest contributor to GDP at 42 percent. Renewed attacks on oil facilities may cut daily production by as much as 445,000 barrels per day from an average of 2.25 million barrels in the first quarter of this year, said Cameron.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, the main rebel group in the delta, has reduced attacks since Jonathan came to power, though the group remains critical of him. MEND says the region’s resources should be exclusively controlled by the people of the delta, who would then pay taxes to the national government.

‘Not Sentimental’

“If he accedes to our demand and the constitution is amended to give freedom to the people of the Niger delta and full control of our land and resources, we will cooperate with him,” MEND spokesman Jomo Gbomo said in an e-mailed response to questions on Sept. 1. “We’re not sentimental about his origin. We’re more concerned about any individual that can emancipate the region after over five decades of bondage.”

Oil companies in the country wouldn’t comment on what action they may take if violence intensifies in the delta. Exxon Mobil Corp., based in Irving, Texas, San Ramon, California-based Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc all operate in Nigeria.

“All we can say is that we’ve been here for 50 years and we look forward to remaining here for another 50 years,” said Tony Okonedo, a spokesman for Shell’s Nigerian unit in Lagos.

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