Nigeria Opposition Relies on Anti-Jonathan Push to Oust PDP

Nigeria’s main political opposition movement, weakened by a series of defections to the ruling party, is hanging its election campaign on what it hopes is a backlash against President Goodluck Jonathan.

Jonathan, 56, has been pilloried by his critics for what they say is his poor record in dealing with Nigeria’s national security crisis amid one of the world’s deadliest insurgencies and failure to root out corruption and fix the economy. In the likelihood that he runs in the Feb. 14 election, the opposition All Progressives Congress says a campaign targeting Jonathan will be enough to turn Nigerians against the ruling People’s Democratic Party for the first time since 1999.

“The federal election will be a test of the popularity of the president,” Bukola Saraki, an opposition lawmaker who sits in Nigeria’s upper house, said in a phone interview from Abuja on Aug. 11. “There must be a candidate who can fight the insurgency, fight for anti-corruption, fight unemployment and bad governance. But largely it’s going to be a referendum on the president.”

Jonathan won the 2011 election with about 59 percent of the vote, promising to wipe out corruption and remedy Nigeria’s chronic power shortages. Since then, his administration has been preoccupied with trying to contain violence in the northeast as attacks by the Islamist rebel group Boko Haram become bloodier.

Boko Haram

Boko Haram killed more than 2,000 people in the first half of this year, according to Human Rights Watch. With an average of 24 deaths per incident in the past year, Nigeria suffers from the world’s deadliest terror attacks, according to a report last month from Bath, U.K.-based risk adviser Maplecroft.

The party aiming to replace the PDP and take charge of a $500 billion economy counts among its ranks one-time military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, former governor of Lagos state Bola Tinubu, its current Governor Babatunde Fashola, and Rotimi Amaechi, governor of the oil-producing Rivers state.

On Aug. 9, Osun state in the southwest voted to keep Governor Rauf Aregbesola of the APC, who took 55 percent of the vote to beat PDP candidate Iyiola Omisore, a victory the opposition party hailed as a signal of its broader popularity.

The next gubernatorial election will be in northeastern Adamawa state by Oct. 14.

“The APC has no room for complacency,” Manji Cheto, vice-president at corporate advisory company Teneo Intelligence, said by phone from London. “The bigger challenge, and ultimately what matters, is the individual rather than policy. Unless you as a party have a strong contender who can carry both the north and the south, what you say doesn’t carry weight.”

Party Defections

Nigeria, a country of about 170 million people, is roughly divided between a mainly Muslim north and a largely Christian south. Jonathan, a Christian, hails from the south, the more prosperous of the two regions, where oil companies such as Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Exxon Mobil Corp. operate.

The APC was formed when the four biggest opposition parties merged last year. Since then, Nigerian party politics has been characterized by a series of defections from one side to the other, notably the shift of five state governors to the APC from the PDP in November.

The PDP scored a coup when its candidate in Ekiti state unseated the APC governor in an election on June 21. This week, Nuhu Ribadu, a former anti-corruption chief who came third in the presidential election in 2011, joined Jonathan’s party from the APC, dealing a blow to the opposition.

Leadership Shakeup

Jonathan broadly retains the support of the Igbo, one of Nigeria’s three biggest ethnic groups, and that of ethnic minorities in the south, the central region and the north. The APC relies on northern Hausa-Fulani Muslims who are generally pro-Buhari, and wants to pick up votes in the southwestern region, ethnically Yoruba. After the PDP’s victory in Ekiti in the southwest, and its garnering of more than 40 percent of the vote in Osun, that strategy may be in danger.

“Following a shakeup in the party leadership, the ruling PDP has stopped -- and to some extent reversed -- the trend of party defections to the opposition,” Philippe de Pontet, director of Africa research at Eurasia Group, said in a report on Aug. 19. “The APC still has a chance if it can mobilize behind a strong northern presidential candidate.”

Security Climate

While the security environment will remain tense in the next six months, with more Boko Haram attacks expected, the probable selection of Jonathan as the ruling party’s candidate means investors shouldn’t expect Nigerian economic momentum to be reversed, de Pontet said. The risk of radical changes in monetary or fiscal policy is also relatively low, he said.

The naira has weakened 1.1 percent against the dollar on the interbank market this year and traded little changed at 162.05 by 8:43 a.m. in Lagos today.

Counting against the APC is the fact that it hasn’t chosen its presidential candidate yet and after much fanfare when it unveiled its manifesto in March, the party has provided little policy detail on its pledges to create jobs and fight graft.

“With six months to go before the national election, we don’t even know who the APC’s flag-bearers are going to be,” Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, a research group based in the capital Abuja, said by phone. “It’s a party of strange bedfellows. There are going to be lots of questions, arguments, alignments and re-alignments.”

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