by Tolu Ogunlesi
This is the first of a series of articles that will be appearing between now and April, on Nigeria’s 2011 general elections.
Update: You may also read this on the Nigerian daily, NEXT’s website, here
Anyone would be forgiven for assuming that Nigeria’s presidential elections will actually be holding in Abuja today, and not in April as advertised by INEC. Five thousand persons – imagine an outsized papal conclave – will assemble at the Eagle Square cast ballots to decide on the candidate that will run for presidency on the platform of the PDP.
The attention being focused on the primaries by local and international media suggests that there is an assumption that Presidency is the PDP’s birthright, and that whoever wins today will easily go on to become Nigeria’s next President. The reason for this is simple: the PDP has held the position since 1999, and despite recent judicial losses of a number of state governorships, still maintains an overwhelming majority in executive and legislative offices at Federal and State levels across the country. There is no real opposition to the party’s hegemony at national level.
When, at the end of today, a chieftain of the PDP counts the ballots publicly, many watchers will recall the 2003 primaries, when incumbent President Olusegun Obasanjo and former Vice President Alex Ekwueme (this time again the leading contenders are an incumbent President and a former Vice President) were the top contenders for the party’s presidential ticket. Instead of a hotly-contested race, what emerged was a very predictable – and overwhelming – victory for Obasanjo.
Cash and carry
Party primaries in Nigeria are typically cash-and-carry affairs; the only rule being the absence of rules. Delegates ‘eat’ from all contending camps, and keep their options open till the last minute. This can make it a most frustrating exercise for candidates, requiring an endless supply of cash, often denominated in dollars. (Richard Dowden has a fascinating account in the chapter on Nigeria in his book “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles”)
There is no evidence that today will be different, whether in how the battle will be fought (with cash), or in the outcome (victory to the ‘incumbent’). No incumbent Nigerian President has ever lost a re-election bid. In a political system in which the President is seen as “leader” of the party, it is hard to imagine how a challenger would succeed staging an upset, and dislodging the person from whom all patronage – contracts and appointments – flows. Already a number of party leaders have insisted that there is “no vacancy” in Aso Rock.
But it is worth pointing out that the Atiku of eight years ago would certainly have floored Goodluck Jonathan, or anyone else, in a contest for the PDP presidential ticket. Indeed Atiku, as a super-powerful Vice President in 2003, was on his way to snatching the ticket from his boss, President Obasanjo, in the primaries of that year.
It took much pleading on Obasanjo’s part to convince his deputy to give up his ambitions. Today, Atiku probably realises, regretfully, that in 2003 he passed up his most viable chance to become President of Nigeria.
In the years since then his influence within the PDP has diminished considerably. Between 2007 and 2010 he was a member of the opposition Action Congress (later ACN), to which he defected when it became clear Obasanjo did not have any plans of handing over to him. Having returned to the ruling party only a few months ago, it is doubtful that he has had any time to (re)build the sort of structure and network that could pose a noticeable challenge to an incumbent.
The Obasanjo factor
One person who may play a deciding role in today’s outcome will be the 73-year-old former President. Obasanjo’s influence within the PDP may have suffered a massive whittling-down since he left office, but anyone who thinks him down-and-out will be greatly mistaken. For one he remains the Chairman of the party’s influential Board of Trustees.
There is no doubt that Mr. Obasanjo will throw his weight behind Mr. Jonathan, who he handpicked as Vice President in 2007. A bitter fight between Obasanjo and Atiku, dating back to the 2003 primaries incident (presumably Obasanjo is still smarting from the humiliation Atiku subjected him to), and which consumed their second term in office, suggests that Obasanjo is not likely to sit back and watch his one-time deputy clinch the PDP ticket.
Atiku will be counting on his vast wealth, the fact that he emerged as the ‘consensus candidate’ of the ‘North’, and on the residue of his once intimidating influence on the PDP; Jonathan on his incumbency advantage, and the endorsement of most of the PDP Governors, who will be providing the delegates.
But if the past is anything to go by, today’s winner will be the person whose cash speaks loudest.
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