Nigeria’s President Bolstered by Defections From Opposition

A string of defections to Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party from the main opposition may have strengthened President Goodluck Jonathan’s chances of winning next year’s elections.

Nuhu Ribadu, Nigeria’s former anti-corruption chief who ran against Jonathan in the 2011 vote, is the latest significant switch from the All Progressives Congress, the strongest opposition coalition mounted against the PDP since military rule ended in Africa’s biggest economy in 1999. Others include Buba Mohammed Marwa, a former military governor of Lagos, and Ibrahim Shekarau, a one-time opposition governor of Kano state and founding member of APC.

Ribadu, 53, “helps boost confidence in the PDP because it’s a demonstration of their current political strength,” Thomas Horn Hansen, senior Africa analyst at London-based Control Risks, said yesterday by phone. “It’s a political coup for the PDP over the APC.”

Africa’s biggest oil producer and most populous country of about 170 million will vote to elect a president on Feb. 14. Jonathan has faced criticism from the opposition and citizens for failing to check corruption, contain a raging Islamist insurgency in the country’s north and deliver on promises of economic reform.

While that had given the opposition coalition its best prospect of toppling the ruling party through the ballot, the recent defections point to the PDP gaining against its rivals.

Governorship Plans

“Ribadu’s defection to the PDP is a blow to the opposition on multiple fronts,” Philippe de Pontet, Africa director at New York-based Eurasia Group said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “It’s a setback for the APC’s self-promoted brand as a true alternative to the ruling party.”

“I wish to assure you that my defection is in pursuit of a good cause,” Ribadu said today in an e-mailed statement addressing his supporters. “As for my next step in this political struggle, this would be made known in due time.”

Ribadu plans to contest the governorship election in Adamawa state in October, Ibrahim Toungo, coordinator of Ribadu Support Group in the state capital Yola, said yesterday by phone.

“Clearly, no party wants to lose anybody,” Lai Mohammed, an APC spokesman, said yesterday in a telephone interview from Lagos, the commercial capital. “But I can assure you the party is stronger than individuals.”

Jonathan, 56, a southern Christian from the oil-rich Niger River delta in the south east, succeeded Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern Muslim, after his death from an undisclosed illness in 2010. Jonathan went on to win a fresh mandate a year later despite opposition from party members aggrieved that he didn’t honor an unwritten rule to rotate the office between the mainly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south.

PDP Gains

While Jonathan hasn’t said if he’ll seek re-election, speculation that he’ll contest the vote prompted key party members, including former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and four governors, to leave the PDP a year ago. They teamed up with other opposition parties to form the APC to end what would be the ruling party’s attempt to extend its 16 years in power next year.

Since then, the ruling party has clawed back ground. Murtala Nyako of Adamawa state, a governor who defected from the PDP to the APC, was impeached and removed by the PDP-dominated state legislature last month on charges of misconduct and violation of the constitution. Jonathan’s party also won back Ekiti state in the south west from the APC, gaining a significant foothold in a region it had lost in the previous election.

Olisa Metuh, a PDP spokesman, declined to comment when contacted by phone.

Corruption Fight

As head of Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency from 2003 to 2007, Ribadu established a reputation for taking the fight against graft even to those with political influence, including more than a dozen former state governors and ex-ministers.

He fled into exile in 2008 after being fired by Yar’Adua, who didn’t give a reason at the time. Ribadu alleged that a number of attempts were made to assassinate him, including an instance in which he was saved by his bullet-proof car when it was fired on. He returned to the country after Jonathan took office two years later.

Ribadu joined the Action Congress of Nigeria as the 2011 elections approached, coming in third behind Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari of the Congress for Progressive Change in the presidential election. The two leading opposition parties joined last year with other smaller parties to form the APC.

Though the APC’s anti-corruption message may be blunted by Ribadu’s departure, his presence in the ruling party may undermine his own anti-graft stance “given the corruption scandals and patronage politics that will continue to swirl around the PDP in coming months,” De Pontet said.

Oil Scandals

Jonathan’s government has come under fire for a lack of transparency in the oil industry. Former central bank Governor Lamido Sanusi was suspended by Jonathan in February after he said that as much as $20 billion of oil receipts due to the government may be missing.

Even though Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer, it relies on subsidized fuel imports for more than 70 percent of domestic supply because it has inadequate refining capacity. That’s spawned a network of fraudulent payments estimated to have cost the country about $7 billion in one year alone, according to a 2011 parliamentary report.

While Ribadu has a profile in Nigeria and abroad, he doesn’t hold popular support, as shown by the previous election outcome, said Emmanuel Remi Aiyede, a senior lecturer of political science at the University of Ibadan.

“His experience in contesting for the presidency shows a lack of national acceptance and popularity beyond the media hype,” he said. “He’s not that politician that has built a significant followership across the country. Nigerian politics goes beyond being known in the media.”

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