President Goodluck Jonathan, who became leader of Africa’s most populous nation only after the death of its elected president, won the endorsement of Nigeria’s ruling party Friday morning, clinching a victory that makes him the overwhelming favourite to win April’s presidential election.
Jonathan cast himself as the leader able to change a nation blessed by natural resources but cursed by years of military dictatorships. However, the regional and religious tensions that flared up during the presidential primary exist across a country troubled by violence and extremism more than 40 years after the end of its brutal civil war.
As the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Jonathan can expect the party to use its political connections, money and muscle to propel him to victory in Nigeria’s unruly and corrupt electoral system. Since the handover in 1999 from military rule to a civilian government, politics in the West African nation have been dominated by the party.
“We have a chance to transform ourselves to be a great nation in the years ahead,” Jonathan told delegates gathered for the convention Thursday night in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
He offered a promise that won a cheer from the crowd, “Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and (Vice President) Nnmadi Sambo will never, never, never let you down.”
The president, dressed in the traditional black caftan and bowler hat of his Niger Delta home, focused on issues his young administration hopes to improve over the next four years. Top among them is a plan to privatize the nation’s decrepit state-run power company. As of now, only those who can afford private generators have constant electricity.
His main challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, hammered the president in a speech over rising debit and growing insecurity in a country divided between a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north. Jonathan ended up taking more than two-thirds of the vote.
The choice between Jonathan and Abubakar highlighted the religious and ethnic fault lines running through the nation of 150 million people. Jonathan, a Christian from the south, became president only after last May’s death of Nigeria’s elected leader, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the north who had only served one term. For that reason, some within the party believe its presidential candidate should be another northerner.
Abubakar repeatedly brought up the arrangement, saying tossing it aside would cause “lawless and anarchy.”
The primary results could mean that the party appears willing to forget about the arrangement. Delegates began voting after the two men’s speeches, dropping marked ballots into see-through glass ballot boxes as observers from the Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission looked on.
The small-scale primary election offered warnings of what might come in the April general election. Some complained that the ballots, bearing serial numbers, allowed their votes to be tracked. Jigawa state Gov. Sule Lamido, a prominent party member, got into a brief scuffle with one election official.
Allegations about delegates receiving bribes as large as $33,000 for their vote also circulated in the capital before the event.
“More or less, it wasn’t as free as it could be,” said one delegate, who asked for anonymity due to the political sensitivity of the election.
International observers called the 2007 election that brought the late Yar’Adua and Jonathan to power rigged, even though it represented the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the nation’s history.
Western nations hope Nigeria’s coming election remains calm. The OPEC-member nation is a top supplier of easily refined crude oil to the U.S. Violence in the country has caused global oil prices to spike in the past.
The primary convention also showed how uneasy the government remains after recent bombings targeting Abuja. Outside of Eagle Square, the site of the convention, federal ministries sat empty all day as security forces locked down roads up to one mile (two kilometres) from the outdoor parade ground. Everyone entering the square faced at least four security screenings, as police sharpshooters stood in towers and flew overhead in a helicopter.
The strong security presence made the convention a more subdued affair, with delegates rarely joining in the call-and-response cheers popular at rallies in the country. Most quickly left after casting their votes, leaving Jonathan and the nation’s political elite almost alone in the parade ground. They sat inside bulletproof glass lit by powerful fluorescent lights, dozing and talking among themselves as the amplified reading of the vote count echoed across the empty arena.