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Nigeria's Pre-Election Tensions

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
October 18, 2010

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The car bombs detonated (Reuters) near Abuja's Eagle Square on October 1 ruined a high-profile military ceremony celebrating Nigeria's fifty years of independence and put President Goodluck Jonathan and other senior political figures at risk. Though the politicians were unhurt, there were sixteen deaths--including security operatives--and sixty-seven injured. President Jonathan's mishandling of the aftermath of the bombings threatens to exacerbate regional tensions. It has also likely reduced Jonathan's stature as a presidential candidate with the political elites in the run-up to the 2011 national elections either in January or April. Nevertheless, he continues to influence the security services and the electoral process, and it is premature to count him out.

Jomo Gbomo, the Internet spokesperson for the inchoate Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility (Reuters) for the attack, saying it was part of its campaign for the Delta to benefit more from the petroleum it produces. While violence associated with MEND has been ubiquitous in the Delta, the recent attack was the first such terrorist act in Abuja, located hundreds of miles away.

Despite MEND's claim, Jonathan put the terrorist attack in the context of presidential rivalries, especially with Ibrahim Babangida--a Northern Muslim, former military head of state and Jonathan's primary presidential challenger. Jonathan denied (ThisDay) that the bombing was linked to the Delta or MEND. Ex-Delta militants now on the government payroll joined the chorus that MEND could not have been responsible. Instead, the security services brought (DailyTrust) in Raymond Dokpesi, Babangida's chief of staff, for questioning. At the request of the Nigerians, South African authorities also arrested former gunrunner and MEND affiliate Henry Okah, who now lives there. Police in Nigeria attempted to link Okah to Dokpesi based on a cryptic text message about payments being made. But attempts to connect Babangida to the bombing through Dokpesi and Okah lacked credibility, not least because Babangida would have had little to gain by involvement with terrorism. Dokpesi has since been released.

Okah alleged in an al-Jazeera interview that Jonathan's office urged (AllAfrica) him to implicate Northern political leaders in the bombings. While Jonathan's supporters accuse Okah of lying, in the North his al-Jazeera interview tends to be taken at face value and feeds a deepening suspicion that Jonathan is shifting the blame away from constituents in the Niger Delta for short-term political gain within the Peoples Democratic Party, whose presidential nomination he seeks.

With no indictments to date, Jonathan's political rivals have also sought to exploit the bombings by questioning his ability to provide even minimal security. Babangida and certain Northern politicians are calling for the National Assembly to impeach Jonathan based on Okah's interview in al-Jazeera, and Dokpesi has filed a lawsuit (JoyOnline) against the State Security Services.  Though these initiatives will certainly fail, Jonathan's response to the bombings is nudging Nigerian politics further in a North versus South direction dangerous in a country where the line between Christians and Muslims runs east to west through the middle of the country, intermingled with hundreds of ethnic groups.

While remaining scrupulously neutral among the candidates, Nigeria's friends should also continue to encourage Nigerian civil organizations working for free, fair, and credible elections conducted according to the rule of law.

Jonathan's opposition has further been emboldened by indications that the government knew in advance about the terrorist attack and failed to take the appropriate steps. The London Telegraph, in a story widely carried in Nigeria, claims that British intelligence warned the Nigerian security services about such a possibility. Indeed, the day or so before October 1 the security services removed numerous parked cars in the area around Eagle Square, apparently satisfying themselves that they had addressed the security threat.

The report of British intelligence was not the only indicator. There was an email from an account associated with Jomo Gbomo that was sent at least an hour prior to the bombings, warning of an impending attack. It was apparently ignored by the security services, though the American and British delegations to the celebrations prudently stayed away. So did Babangida, who subsequently explained his absence as a protest against the excessive costs of the celebration. While the president has said that there was an "intelligence failure," it remains baffling that the Nigerian political establishment would fail to heed the warnings and put itself at risk..

The likelihood that the Abuja bombings were the work of Delta militants has also damaged Jonathan's political credentials. As a Christian Ijaw from the Bayelsa state in the Delta, Jonathan often claims political credit for reducing violence in the Delta and restoring oil production. And Jonathan's attraction to the elite kingmakers that will determine the governing Peoples Democratic Party's (PDP) presidential candidate for 2011 is based at least in part on his alleged control of the Delta, which has been brought into question by these bombings.

Jonathan recently appears to be backing away from his early assertion that the bombings had nothing to do with the Delta. But the damage is done. Some in the North believe Jonathan is promoting his political interests at their expense. And there are raw nerves. Since 1999, Nigeria appears to have been well-served by an informal power sharing understanding among elites to reduce religious, ethnic, and regional conflict by rotating the presidency regionally--and, in effect, religiously--between North and South, and their Muslim and Christian majorities, every eight years. Elected vice president, Jonathan is president now only because of the death of Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the North who was elected president in 2007. As it is the North's turn for the presidency until 2015, many Nigerians expected that Jonathan would not run in 2011 and bide his time. However, Jonathan announced in September that he would be a presidential candidate in 2011, thereby suspending powersharing.

Still, the Abuja bombings and the controversies surrounding them have not knocked Jonathan out of the presidential race. As the incumbent and through his influence over the security services and the electoral machinery, his chances of emerging as the PDP presidential candidate remain strong. Still, his willingness to cast aside a powersharing mechanism and his apparent effort to play on regional differences do not bode well for the future. Beyond presidential politics, Nigeria's friends hope the Abuja bombings do not signal a new round of violence as the election season approaches.  While remaining scrupulously neutral among the candidates, Nigeria's friends should also continue to encourage Nigerian civil organizations working for free, fair, and credible elections conducted according to the rule of law.

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