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Jonathan Frontrunner for Next Year's Vote in Nigeria

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan delivers a speech in Port Harcourt on 14 May 2010
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan delivers a speech in Port Harcourt on 14 May 2010

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has less than a year to finish out the term of the country's late president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. But he is already the frontrunner for next year's election and will be hard to beat if he improves electricity and enacts electoral reforms.  Mr. Jonathan's candidacy would challenge an informal regional power sharing agreement.

After months of uncertainty as Nigeria's president, Mr. Jonathan has moved quickly to show that this is now his government following President Yar'Adua's death.

With a new cabinet and new vice president, Mr. Jonathan has set ambitious goals to boost electricity production, secure the gains of an amnesty for Niger Delta militants, and enact electoral reforms before next year's vote.

If he succeeds, University of Lagos political science professor Abubakar Momoh says President Jonathan will be hard to beat in the race for the nomination of the ruling People's Democratic Party.

"There are no people outside of this network of government patronage as such in the PDP that are able, beyond their politicking and sloganeering, who are able to have the kind of economy to be able to sustain the incumbency patronage that Goodluck is able to doll out in the context of the configuration that we now have," Momoh said. "And note that they have only seven months to sort themselves out and that gives an advantage to Goodluck, because they did not expect this scenario."

Momoh says the president is well positioned to take advantage of divisions within the party over an informal power sharing agreement that rotates the presidency between north and south. That deal says the next ruling-party candidate should be from the north. President Jonathan is from the south.

"Goodluck is an incumbent, and now a lot of following is tilting in his direction, the balance of forces are therefore in his favor. He's been able to get some echelons, strong henchmen within the secretariat of the party to go, and more heads will roll," Momoh stated. "And they are bringing in allegations of corruption to undermine them, their moral credibility is totally eroded and that is the weakest link in all these matters."

One of the biggest obstacles to a Jonathan candidacy was ruling-party chairman Vincent Ogbulafor, who said the regional power sharing deal must be respected. But he is stepping down in the face of federal corruption charges and challenges from within the party about how it selects its candidates.

Former Minister of State for Justice Musa Elayo Abdullahi is a member of the ruling party's reform forum. "The reform group believes that the delegates that are being made to elect the governors and the president are heavily tainted toward the people who are occupying the office of governors currently. Therefore, if you are standing for election as a member of the house of assembly of a state or the house of representatives or the senate, the governor decides whether you can win that primary or not," he said.

The ruling party's reform movement wants to weaken the power of state governors to make the selection of candidates more transparent. That could help President Jonathan as many of his challengers are expected to come from Nigeria's 36 statehouses.

Unreliable electricity is one of the most potent political issues in Africa's largest oil producer. President Jonathan has taken charge of improving power supplies by keeping that portfolio for himself in the new cabinet.

It is a gamble, especially with so short a time to deliver. But if voters see a real difference, it could be the cornerstone of a campaign that political science professor Momoh believes the president is already planning.

"Jonathan is going to stand [for] elections. Let's not make any qualms about it, even from what he said at the party executive meeting they had about three weeks ago. If you read within the line, he talks about, to use his phrase, "mosquito networking," Momoh explained. "According to him, he was fair. He was square. It was OK. So he was just trying to advertise to the world that 'well look, this thing is permissible, it is a democracy so, let as many flower and blossom'. So that is the thing he is saying to you guys: I am coming."

President Jonathan is under no real deadline to formally announce his candidacy. The longer he keeps his political opponents off balance, the less time they will have to mount a campaign against him.

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