Disarray and defections are undermining the governing party and the President but don’t yet put the opposition clearly in the lead
The defection of five state governors from his party to the new opposition alliance on 26 November can hardly have surprised President Goodluck Jonathan, who has been procrastinating over the growing political crisis for the last four months. The most generous interpretation is that he was torn between the vengeful faction of the governing People’s Democratic Party (PDP) under National Chairman Bamanga Tukur, who wanted the toughest sanctions against party dissidents, and more tactical operators such as former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who wanted to tie the rebels up in tortuous negotiations about reconciliation. In the end, it may be that Jonathan and his party provoked the defections more by accident than design.
They came at the end of what had been an unusually eventful week for the President. On 19 November, he had failed to read the budget – again – in the National Assembly, this time because of a dispute over the forecast international price of oil, according to his officials. Then he boarded the presidential jet to London for a meeting of his Honorary International Investor Council hosted by its Coordinator, Lynda Chalker, a British Conservative former Minister for Africa and of Development, on 21-22 November. After that, the accounts diverge. The official version has it that Jonathan retired to the presidential suite at the Intercontinental Hotel to prepare diligently for a presentation to investors the following morning.
Very unofficially, the more colourful versions of the evening posted on social media, some by card-carrying opposition politicians, had a tired and emotional President energetically celebrating his 56th birthday with several delighted guests. Both versions, however, end with his seeking urgent medical attention and then skipping the first day of the investors’ conference.
After a speedy recovery allowed him to rejoin the meeting, Jonathan spent the weekend in London before flying home, ostensibly for discussions on 25 November to bring the rebel governors back into the mainstream PDP fold. In the event, he complained of jet-lag after the six-hour flight and called it off. For five of the seven rebel governors, that was the end of the line. The next day, Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso (Kano State), Aliyu Wamakko (Sokoto), Murtala Nyako (Adamawa), Rotimi Amaechi (Rivers) and Abdulfatah Ahmed (Kwara) assembled at Kwankwaso’s house in Abuja and announced they would join the opposition All Progressives’ Congress.
Beaming alongside them was Abubakar Baraje, a thwarted contender for the national chairmanship of the mainstream PDP, who has played a catalytic role in this rebellion. His key partners are former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar (from Adamawa State, in the north-east) and Abubakar Bukola Saraki (Kwara, in the Middle Belt). All three helped to orchestrate the walk out from the PDP national conference by seven rebel governors on 31 August and their subsequent press conference to announce their rebellion and the formation of the New PDP. Then they had the advantage of surprise over Jonathan, Tukur and the rest of the mainstream leadership.
In the interim, they’ve squandered that advantage. Their hesitation about how seriously to pursue talks with Jonathan or how enthusiastically to take up the seductive offers from the APC leadership may prove politically costly. Not only has their indecisiveness cost them time, it makes them look weak and unprincipled.Nor do the defections cover the APC in glory. Why should it welcome into its ranks governors from the President’s party who are widely accused by opposition supporters of having rigged themselves into power? Mainstream Nigerian politics continues to be an almost ideology-free and policy-free zone.
When they arise, policy considerations are usually linked to personalities. There are a few exceptions in the APC strongholds in the south-west, where support for Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola and his counterpart in Ekiti, Kayode Fayemi, is based on their popularity but also on their policies, which have palpably improved schools and health services, and cleaned up the environment.
The PDP defectors pose a conundrum for the opposition. They will certainly weaken the governing party but how much will they strengthen the APC? There is a risk that they will import their quarrels and rivalries into the opposition. That at least is the concern voiced privately by Mohammadu Buhari, whose decision this year to merge his northern-based Congress for Progressive Change with the south-western based Action Congress Nigeria created the APC as a national opposition force.
With a strong following across all the northern states, Major General (Retired) Buhari, is a frontrunner for the APC presidential nomination. Kwankwaso and Nyako have brought to the APC some of the political resources of governor’s office and it may be that they too regard themselves as contenders for the APC’s presidential nomination. Resolving the question of the APC’s candidate and running mate for a poll only a year away is now the party’s biggest challenge. Everyone knows Buhari’s stern anti-corruption candidacy would win votes in the north but it could lose the support of more liberal electors and of Christians in the south.
The PDP reels
Whichever way the PDP spins it, the defection of five governors is still a serious blow: perhaps more to the party than to Jonathan. Indeed, his allies are already setting up alternative party structures in the rebel governors’ states. All the rebel governors are in their second terms, so their defection allows Jonathan and his allies to choose successor candidates from within the PDP. As for election tactics, the critical figure is the director of police in each of the 36 states, who is appointed, like the director of the Independent National Electoral Commission, by the President.
Another key determinant of the defectors’ power is their financial position. In the case of Amaechi, who has been in dispute with Jonathan for much of this year, the Presidency has succeeded in almost shutting down the Governor’s office. It suspended Amaechi from the PDP and then, with the help of Chief Ezenwo Nyesom Wike, Education Minister and a close friend of the First Lady, Patience Faka Jonathan, fomented a political crisis in the state which ended with the closure of the State Assembly and severe restrictions on state budget allocations.
There’s every reason to suspect that the other four rebel state governors will get the same treatment. Already, all allocations to the states and to local governments have been delayed because of serious oil revenue shortfalls.
The other warning sign which flashed up during the defections was Baraje’s insistence that seven governors were quitting the PDP for the opposition. In fact, two of the original seven rebel governors, Mu’azu Babangida Aliyu of Niger and Sule Lamido of Jigawa, declined to join the others.
Their reluctance seems to be linked partly to a fear of retribution by the mainstream PDP hierarchy and the powerful influence of two former military leaders. Despite his doubts about the merits of Jonathan’s presidency, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida, remains a powerful political force in Niger State and seems to have restrained the Governor.
The same goes for Gen. (Rtd.) Obasanjo, who returned to power in 1999 as the first president elected on the PDP ticket after the return to civilian rule. He also has his quarrels with Jonathan but is determined to maintain a grip on the PDP and has no time for the opposition. Lamido was Obasanjo’s presidential candidate and he may still harbour the idea of persuading Jonathan to include him on the ticket as running mate in the next election.
President Jonathan should not be underestimated. He may also be playing games with the two governors, perhaps suggesting to each of them that they could replace the lacklustre Namadi Sambo as Vice-President. Whatever the case, Aliyu’s and Lamido’s aides quickly contradicted Baraje’s announcement that they had quit the PDP and professed to be puzzled about how their position could be misinterpreted.
That suggested more chaos in the opposition camp. Then on the same day, Jonathan invited Edo Governor Adams Oshiomole, who is ostensibly aligned with the APC, for talks at Aso Rock. He rushed in and out of the presidential villa and looked irritated when journalists asked him what he was doing there. There is evidently disarray at the top of both the opposition and the governing party. The one certainty is that the APC has finally broken the PDP’s monopoly on national political organisations and will present a serious challenge in the next elections.
– This Piece was culled from Africa Confidential