Nigeria’s upcoming elections – looking at some of the issues

Investors and business people will keep a close eye on Nigeria’s upcoming general elections, scheduled for April 2011. In an interview with How we made it in Africa, historian Max Siollun, author of Oil, Politics and Violence: Nigeria’s Military Coup Culture (1966-1976), addresses some of the issues

Goodluck Jonathan

President Goodluck Jonathan

By standing for election as president in the 2011 elections, the current incumbent Goodluck Jonathan ignored the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s (PDP) zoning arrangement – an informal agreement whereby it rotates its presidential candidate between the Muslim north and Christian south. Do you think the scrapping of the zoning arrangement will have broader implications for Nigeria’s political stability?

The PDP has to manage this very carefully. The zoning arrangement is not a legal or constitutional provision. It is an internal mechanism developed by the ruling party. “Zoning” has not been scrapped as such. The PDP has managed the issue by stating that it will not block Jonathan from standing for election due to the unusual circumstances that led to him coming to power (the death of ex-President Yar’Adua). It has sat on the fence by stating that while it will not block Jonathan’s candidacy, it would also not stop northern candidates from standing.

The PDP has to be careful not to be seen to block any candidate or region from aspiring to the presidency based on ethnicity. Instability will follow if the PDP bars any candidate demographic. Therefore it seems that the PDP has temporarily suspended zoning, rather than abandon it altogether.

Has Goodluck Jonathan proved himself a worthy president since taking over the reins from the late President Umara Yar’Adua?

He has said the right things and promised reforms to introduce greater transparency into election procedures, privatisation of the electrical sector, and political and economic reforms. However, although every Nigerian leader has always made grandiose promises of reform, not all of them have kept their promises. It is too early to judge Jonathan’s presidency. The test will be whether he is willing to, and able to do what is he is currently saying.

Although Nigeria has made significant progress since the return to democracy in 1999, the PDP-led government has still performed way below the public’s expectations. How safe is the PDP’s grip on power?

The PDP is very unlikely to lose power in the near future. Right now the opposition’s control is limited to small pockets in the north-east, and in a few other states in the south-east, and south-west. The PDP controls the vast majority of constituencies in Nigeria and has boasted of ruling Nigeria for several decades. Right now – that boast does not seem unrealistic. Ironically, the most likely route for the PDP to lose power is if the party fractures from within.

The PDP’s presidential nomination is bitterly contested precisely because there is a perception that the party’s candidate is virtually certain to win. The presidential nomination race has factionalised the party behind different candidates. If these factions pull hard enough in different directions, it could lead one or more splinter groups to defect and form new parties to challenge the PDP.

Do you foresee a change in Nigeria’s legal and regulatory environment after the elections?

There is great public desire for reform. The new president, whomever he is and whichever party he belongs to, will be under considerable pressure to conduct reform to introduce greater accountability into politics and economics. Two of the opposition presidential candidates, Nuhu Ribadu and Muhammadu Buhari, are both presenting themselves as reformist anti-corruption campaigners. The next government will not want to be upstaged by these reformists (assuming neither man wins).

What is your message to foreign business people concerned about Nigeria’s political stability after the 2011 elections?

There is unlikely to be a substantial change to domestic or international economic and political policies. The most likely outcome is that the PDP will win again, retain power and continue its current free market policies, and privatise the electricity sector.