The perils of Nigeria’s election odyssey

2010-12-04 14:21

Africa’s largest political party is facing its biggest test yet. ­Nigeria’s ruling People’s ­Democratic Party (PDP), which not only calls itself the continent’s largest but boasts it will reign for 60 years, is not sure of ­tomorrow any more.

Though the party made gains last year when a few stalwarts from the opposition ­defected to its ranks, those gains have been eroding.

In the last month, courts in the ­nation’s southwest removed two PDP governors on grounds of fraud in the 2007 election, and ordered a repeat of the election in Delta State, a key stronghold of the ruling party.

Any hopes that the party would mend ­quickly and present a united front in next year’s general election were dashed when four aspirants to the presidential ticket, including former vice-president Atiku Abubakar and former military president Ibrahim ­Babangida, teamed up ­under a northern elders’ group to anoint Abubakar as the PDP’s “northern” candidate.

The decision by the elders’ group to find a northern candidate followed months of ­bickering over claims that there had been a zoning agreement within the PDP to retain power in the north for eight years.

The ­agreement broke down after the death of former president Umar Yar’Adua in May, and the ­decision of his deputy, Goodluck ­Jonathan, a southerner, to run for?office.

Minutes after Abubakar was announced as the consensus candidate of the northern elders’ group on Monday, my phone rang.

The caller’s voice was drowned in the surge of excitement by Abubakar ­supporters in the hall .

Almost immediately, a friend who was with me when the news broke, put a call through to the camp of the president.

“You will not believe what I’m hearing,” he said, rocking with laughter as he reported on the call he’d just made.

“You’d think that the president himself has just been re-elected.”

But why? The thinking in ­pro-Jonathan ­circles is that the only thing worse than a ­political suicide is fielding Abubakar in a ­two-way presidential contest for the PDP ticket against Jonathan, coming up in January.

After the bruising William Jefferson ­corruption trials in the US, where ­Abubakar’s name featured prominently; the mudslinging during former president ­Olusegun ­Obasanjo’s last days in office; the wilderness years outside the ruling party;

and a string of promiscuous affairs with the opposition – is Abubakar really worth more than a passing thought as a presidential contender? What better opponent could Jonathan have wished for?

Still, while Jonathan’s camp rejoiced, the mood in Abubakar’s camp was also jubilant for a different, if exactly opposite, set of ­reasons.

Where others thought that the positioning of Abubakar as the northern candidate would damage his national appeal, his supporters felt it had, at least, guaranteed a foothold after a long spell in the ­political ­wilderness.

In a country where matches are won before they are even played, what happens before the game is often just as important as what happens during it.

Since the announcement, there have been strenuous efforts within the PDP and outside to make the point that Abubakar is the candidate of the elders’ committee and not the candidate of the north.

And, the more Abubakar is dismissed as a candidate without a chance, the more he appears determined to prove his critics wrong.

There is something about his odyssey that reminds me of South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi.

While the former ­survived a spate of financial and sex scandals and went ahead to topple Thabo Mbeki, the latter thrives on sleaze and controversies.

Nigeria does not require a new creative process to manufacture its own Zumas and Berlusconis. The line-up for next year’s election is already loaded with such men.

If one aspirant thinks that his opponent is a worse alternative, however, it’s simply because each is measuring himself by his own standards.

They will be mistaken to think that after years of rigged polls and brinkmanship, ­voters still do not care.

When the aspirants have finished with themselves and their ­parties they will have vigilant voters, ­aggrieved losers and radical courts to contend with.

» Ishiekwene is a former editor of Punch, Nigeria’s largest privately owned daily newspaper, and is currently a ­member of the editorial board of World Policy Journal.

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