On Wednesday, Nigeria’s main opposition party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), met in Lagos to discuss strategy ahead of next year’s presidential race. After months of speculation, President Goodluck Jonathan announced his candidacy in November to the horror (if not surprise) of many opposition groups. The president has been in power since 2010, stepping in after President Umaru Yar’Adua died during his first term. Citing an unwritten rule by which the presidency alternates between a representative of the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian south, many northern critics have pressured Jonathan to step down.
Now, the APC is weighing potential candidates. Jeane Afrique reports that of the five hopefuls on the docket – former dictator Muhammadu Buhari, ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar, state governor (and erstwhile Jonathan ally) Rabiu Kwankwaso, parliamentary speaker Aminu Tambuwal and newspaper owner Sam Nda-Isaiah — two have emerged as viable opponents. Buhari, who has run in three previous presidential elections, boasts broad support in northern Nigeria, while Abubakar is a seasoned pol with plenty of cash reserves on which to draw. Both candidates are Muslims from northern Nigeria.
The selected APC candidate will have plenty to seize upon during the countdown to the February election, what with the president coming out of a disastrous year on multiple fronts. Namely security. Not only has the Nigerian government failed to contain the spread of the radical Islamist movement Boko Haram, but it exacerbated it through elephant gun tactics that strengthened the group’s resolve and alienated local populations. At the same time Jonathan has grappled with an exodus of senior officials from his ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), as well as a very public reprimand by former supporter and ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo.
And yet Jonathan appears fairly invincible thanks in part to his opponents’ inability to propose concrete initiatives. The president has also seized on small (dubious) victories to reassure his support base, starting with the classification of Nigeria as Africa’s largest economy this year. (Though that ranking was based less on actual progress, and more on Nigeria’s long-overdue revision of its GDP calculation method.) The president’s popularity was also boosted by the World Health Organization’s announcement this October that Nigeria was officially Ebola-free.
So the onus is on the APC, formed last year and made up of three opposition parties, to run a cohesive campaign. The opposition coalition has lots of material to work with – look for some serious mudslinging in the next eight weeks — but will need to engage Nigeria’s southern populace as well. The danger here is that the presidential race becomes a face-off between north and south, triggering ethnic fault lines in the process.
The election will have ramifications beyond Abuja – namely in Washington where a chill has descended on U.S.-Nigeria relations. (Already the African state is looking towards Russia as its new arms supplier.) Neighboring states like Chad and Niger will be watching closely as well. With the Ebola virus raging alongside the specter of Islamic extremism, Western Africa badly needs an oasis of stability. After five years of incoherent strategies under Jonathan, the question remains whether an opposition figure can do any better.