News / Africa

VP Choice Opens Way for Nigeria's Jonathan to Run in 2011

Nigeria's national assembly Tuesday begins consideration of a new vice president.  President Goodluck Jonathan's choice of a deputy with little nationwide experience opens the way for him to run for president next year, if he decides to challenge an informal power-sharing deal.

There were several high-profile candidates for vice president, including Nigeria's national security advisor, the secretary to the Government of the Federation and its senate president. Any of those men would have quickly become the ruling-party frontrunner for next year's vote, because an unofficial regional power sharing deal precludes President Jonathan from running because he is from southern Nigeria.

But Mr. Jonathan nominated Kaduna state governor Namadi Sambo - a quieter, less-obviously ambitious politician with a solid record of financial management and little nationwide experience.

That has added to speculation that Mr. Jonathan may challenge the regional power sharing deal and run for president himself.

"The man who is best qualified to serve this country should be elected president, irrespective of where he is from," said social activist Chukwunyere Onyinye, who is from Nigeria's southern Delta State.

He says politicians across the country have manipulated the north/south divide for their own gain.

"The people you brand as northerners are actually a clique, a clique of power hegemony that have not even held well for the generality of the people of northern Nigeria.  And, in the south, those who also portend or purport to speak for the people of southern Nigeria do not honestly represent the interests of those people," he said.  "So broadly, this country is one."

One of the reasons this power-sharing deal came into place was because southern politicians long complained of political dominance by the north.

Musa Elayo Abdullahi is a former minister of state for justice and a ruling-party leader from the north.  He says southern leaders should not complain if Mr. Jonathan breaks the deal now, before the north is allowed to complete what would have been President Yar'Adua's second term.

"So what we have now is not a complete process.  If today that is aborted, then it simply means that tomorrow nobody will complain of political domination," said Abdullahi.  "Both the north and southern part of the country have enough mature leaders to run for the presidency of this country. The presidency of the country should be open to every Nigerian and Nigerians should elect whoever they want to govern over them, irrespective of where he comes from."

Political scientist Isitoah Ozoemene says Nigeria's informal power-sharing agreement denies voters the right to choose among the best candidates.

"The issue of zoning is not a very proper thing to do. That is the truth of the matter," he said. "The issue of saying a particular candidate who should be in government, at a particular point in time, must come from one part of the country leaves us with not the best set of persons."

Nigeria's religious and ethnic divisions are a political reality. If President Jonathan decides to run, ruling-party member Ovie Joseph believes he will choose a northern Muslim as his running mate, to balance the ticket.

"Today now things like that have been happening. When you have the Christian at the head, you have the Muslim at the other side. When you have the Muslim at the head, you have the Christian on the other side," he said.  "I think that is the only way that people feel the question is balanced."

If President Jonathan wins the ruling-party's nomination for 2011, he will hard to beat. That is somewhat easier now that he gets to choose a new ruling-party chairman.

But if the party chooses a northern nominee, in keeping with the regional power sharing agreement, President Jonathan could still run for another party.  Or, pending electoral reforms, as an independent.

That would be considerably more difficult, not only because he would be running against the ruling party.  Northern Nigeria is more homogenous and much easier to organize behind a single candidate.  Southern Nigeria is far more fractious and Mr. Jonathan would likely split that vote with several other candidates.

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