Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is working to ensure that Umaru Yaradua will succeed him after the country's April 21 presidential election. Obasanjo is using his office's considerable powers to keep rival candidates divided and confused -- an unpopular tactic which Obasanjo's critics call undemocratic but which will secure Yaradua's victory.
April 21 will see the first Nigerian presidential election in which power will transfer from one civilian to another. Outgoing Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo is standing down in favor or Umaru Yaradua, governor of the northern Katsina state. Yaradua's running mate is Goodluck Jonathan, governor of Bayelsa state in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region. The country's next president and vice president will be inaugurated May 29.
Obasanjo is working to make sure that Yaradua succeeds him as president. Straying from free and fair democratic practices, Obasanjo will use his executive powers to throw roadblocks -- literal and figurative -- in his rivals' paths to ensconce Yaradua in Nigeria's State House.
Yaradua was chosen to lead the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) at the party's Dec. 16 primaries. He was selected because he was seen as the least corrupt candidate and because his candidacy, with Jonathan as his running mate, could ease the tensions between the country's north and south. This duo was seen as placating South-South demands (South-South?) for presidential power while complying with competing demands that the presidency go to a northerner after Obasanjo's eight years in office (Obasanjo hails from the Yoruba tribe in southwestern Nigeria).
Of Nigeria's 24 presidential candidates, Obasanjo has focused his attention -- and wrath -- on two who are the greatest obstacles to a Yaradua victory. Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar is running on the Action Congress party ticket. Obasanjo's harsh moves to sideline Abubakar stem from the vice president's decision to mobilize his supporters among Nigeria's governors and legislators to strike down a constitutional revision that would have permitted Obasanjo a third term in office. The other leading candidate is Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria People's Party (ANPP). Buhari, who as a military ruler led Nigeria from 1983 to 1985, is seen as a disciplinarian running on a platform to rid Nigeria of misrule. Buhari lost to Obasanjo in the 2003 presidential elections, which were widely characterized as rigged.
Obasanjo's office has contested Abubakar's candidacy and leveled a corruption indictment against the vice president which led the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) to disqualify Abubakar from the election. Abubakar's campaign team has appealed to the supreme court, which recently announced its intention to hear the case April 13 (we have a sitrep that says the court was to hear the case April 12). That hearing was postponed until April 16 after Obasanjo declared a two-day national holiday beginning April 12, ostensibly to permit Nigerians to prepare to vote in the state governor and legislator elections on April 14.
Buhari, meanwhile, has attempted to form a “granite” coalition encompassing all 23 presidential candidates running against Yaradua. Buhari has not been able to convince more than a handful of candidates to join him, though, because of the weak credibility backing his promises of perks and offices for those who join him. This credibility issue has arisen not only from the perception that Buhari's disciplinarian approach to governing would cause him to renege on these promises, but also from rival candidates' fears that Buhari will lose and those in his coalition will lose any hope of inclusion in Yaradua's government
Problems aside, Abubakar and Buhari still pose credible challenges to Yaradua, which means Obasanjo is not leaving the election to chance. The delayed supreme court hearing is seen as a strategic move to encourage Abubakar to keep his campaign alive in case his disqualification is overturned. (Though Nigeria's judiciary has generally not been independent of the federal government's interests, lower courts previously have ruled in favor of Abubakar, and the supreme court could rule either way on his disqualification.) This keeps the opposition divided between Abubakar and Buhari's coalition.
Obasanjo is also effectively limiting the campaign season. Nigeria's attorney general obtained a Federal High Court of Abuja injunction April 10 against the INEC, compelling the council to hold elections on schedule. Though the elections could have been postponed -- and still conformed to the constitution -- when Alliance for Democracy presidential candidate Adebayo Adefarati died March 29, Obasanjo stayed with the timetable.
A short campaign season -- mere days, if the supreme court rules in favor of Abubakar -- plays to Obasanjo’s strengths of party organization and national reach. While the PDP is contesting and has support at all elected offices nationwide, the ANPP and AC are limited in terms of their geographic reach and support base. Both are relying on their principals' personalities to deliver votes, and there remains a strong disconnect between those principals and the grassroots party members. Reaching the majority of the electorate, many of whom are illiterate and not politically aware, requires party organization -- a quality the ANPP and AC lack compared to the PDP.
Obasanjo is deploying yet another tool to safeguard Yaradua’s chances. Coinciding with the two-day national holiday, Obasanjo asked Nigerians on April 13 to restrict their movement and stay at home at night, with movement on voting days restricted to essential travel only. While this is meant to thwart violence, it also curtails candidates' ability to campaign and makes it even more difficult for Abubakar and Buhari to gather support.
Obasanjo clearly intends to see Yaradua succeed him in office and is employing a full range of executive powers to compel this election victory. The upcoming presidential election will not be described as free and fair; rather it will be seen as one of the difficult choices made to consolidate Nigeria's democratic transition.