The ruling party and the country’s president face their greatest-ever challenge
GOODLUCK JONATHAN, Nigeria’s president, was visibly stunned when a former vice-president, Atiku Abubakar, and seven state governors recently walked out of a convention of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in open rebellion against his leadership. The party has won every election since it took power after the end of military rule in 1998. But it is bitterly divided over whether Mr Jonathan (pictured above) should run for a second full term in 2015. As a result, there is a chance—most analysts are wary of putting it more firmly—that, whether or not Mr Jonathan stays at its head, the PDP’s mighty cash-laden machine may lose power. And that could turn Nigerian politics upside down.
Mr Abubakar and the rebel governors have broken away to declare a “new PDP”. “We have taken it upon ourselves to rescue the party from its dictatorial leadership,” says Kawu Baraje, the new outfit’s chairman, who has accused Mr Jonathan and the rump party’s chairman, Bamanga Tukur, of allowing “political repression, restrictions of freedom of association and arbitrary suspension of members”.
The breakaway faction has a distinctly northern flavour. Six of the seven rebel governors are from the north or the middle belt, exposing faultlines that have widened under Mr Jonathan, a southerner from the oil-rich Niger Delta. Only one rebel governor, Rotimi Amaechi, from Rivers state, is a southerner. Mr Amaechi, who is said to hanker after the vice-presidency in 2015, has been embroiled in an acrimonious row with Mr Jonathan and his wife.
In May Mr Amaechi was voted in as chairman of the powerful Nigeria Governors’ Forum, beating the president’s favoured candidate, Jonah Jang of Plateau state—an embarrassing defeat for Mr Jonathan. The forum is divided, with 19 governors backing the rebel governor and the other 16 sticking with Mr Jang. “I am concerned for my safety,” says Mr Amaechi, who has apparently taken to driving alone, with non-government number plates.
On September 1st 57 PDP members of the 360-seat House of Representatives, the federal National Assembly’s lower chamber, pledged their loyalty to the rebel PDP; 22 of the 50 sitting PDP members in the 109-strong Senate then followed suit. Several others are said to waver. The rebel caucus, known as the G7, may be able to swing the votes of delegates from their states at the PDP primary election next year, when the party is due to choose its presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The G7 includes the governors of Kano and Rivers states, two of the most populous. Unless Mr Jonathan squelches the party rebellion, he could lose the primary.
In an effort to regain the initiative, the president has sacked nine of his ministers. It is no coincidence that four are from states whose governors have defected, while another two were originally nominated by Olusegun Obasanjo, a still powerful former president (1999-2007), who helped Mr Jonathan into the top job but has more recently been making trouble for him. A PDP insider says there is a growing mood of paranoia in the party as leading figures seek to dodge Mr Jonathan’s axe.
Mr Jonathan may now put close allies in ministerial posts to limit the influence of governors, especially in states such as Kano and Rivers. On September 16th the rump PDP announced that Mohammed Abacha, son of the late General Sani Abacha, Nigeria’s notoriously greedy military dictator (1993-98), had been brought back into the party from the opposition. It is speculated that Mr Abacha, who is himself vastly rich, may run for governor of Kano under the auspices of the old PDP in 2015.
It is also possible that Mr Jonathan will get the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), an agency that is supposed to snuff out corruption, to probe the PDP’s defectors, some of whom have already been targeted by it. A weighty northern senator, Bukola Saraki, had already been questioned by the EFCC before holding meetings for the rebel faction in his grand house in Abuja, the capital. “Jonathan will do anything to win,” says a senior PDP man. “But he will struggle in the north where the mood is very anti-Jonathan and anti-PDP.”