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Nigeria gears for high-stakes vote

11 January 2011, 14:03

Lagos - Nigeria's ruling party picks a presidential candidate this week in a high-stakes vote ahead of general elections viewed as among the most important in the history of Africa's most populous nation.

The contest is between President Goodluck Jonathan, a fedora-wearing zoologist thrust into the presidency after his predecessor's death, and Atiku Abubakar, an ex-vice president who has had to fight off corruption allegations.

Nigeria's future may hang in the balance.

Presidential, legislative and state governorship elections are set for April in ballots where ethnic, religious and regional factors are likely to play key roles - and possibly result in further violence as the polls approach.

The country, one of the world's largest oil producers, has already seen an upsurge in violence in recent weeks, including bombings in the capital Abuja and the central city of Jos, as well as attacks targeting political rallies.

"There is nothing to suggest things are going to get better," said Chidi Odinkalu, legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative.

"It could easily get worse. Institutions of government are going to be tested beyond their capacity."

Watershed election

Thursday's presidential primary for the ruling Peoples Democratic Party comes after a bitter campaign that saw high-profile northern politicians oppose Jonathan, a Christian southerner.

Abubakar, a Muslim from the north, is challenging Jonathan for the nomination after having emerged as the consensus candidate among a group of the northern political elite.

Despite the strong challenge, Jonathan is generally seen as having fended off Abubakar and is expected to win the nomination, but politics in Nigeria, where corruption is deeply rooted, can be notoriously difficult to predict.

The winner stands a strong chance of coming out ahead in April's election, with the PDP having won every presidential vote since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

No matter who emerges, the April vote will be a watershed election, testing the country's ability to organise a credible poll after a series of violent and deeply flawed ballots.

Fresh tensions

It will take place as authorities seek to keep a lid on violence in the oil-producing Niger Delta region, as well as amid attacks in the north blamed on an Islamist sect and unrest attributed to a power struggle in central Nigeria.

Some say a victory by Jonathan will cause fresh tensions by further alienating the north.

Others warn that Niger Delta militants and criminal gangs will react violently to a loss by Jonathan, who is the first president from the deeply impoverished region, which has suffered years of unrest.

The vote will determine "whether Nigeria will remain as one or will break up into many entities", said Debo Adeniran, who heads the Coalition Against Corrupt Leaders.

Others argue that Nigeria has found its way through turmoil many times before, defying doomsday predictions, and will almost surely do so again, especially with so much at stake in a country rich with oil.

But the significance of Jonathan's candidacy should not be underestimated since many say it is simply not his turn.

The PDP has had an arrangement that sees its candidates rotated between the country's predominately Muslim north and mainly Christian south every eight years.

Pre-election violence

Jonathan took office eight months ago following the death of Umaru Yar'Adua, a northerner who was still in his first term. For that reason, some in the party argue that another northerner should be given the nomination.

The arrangement has served as a way of smoothing over ethnic, religious and social divides in a country of some 250 ethnic groups and 150 million people.

It has been viewed as both an outdated policy pandering to tribal politics and a power-sharing deal helping hold the vast country together.

Either way, observers say pre-election violence could worsen, saying there is no evidence much is being done to curb the unrest.

Retired General Ibrahim Haruna, a northern activist, described campaign violence in Nigeria as "an indirect way of rigging by intimidation," usually employed because elections are seen as do-or-die affairs.

According to Adeniran, "holding political office in Nigeria is very lucrative and people want to get there by hook or crook".



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