Posters appeared on January 1 promoting President Goodluck Jonathan’s re-election in 2015 — a seemingly innocuous gesture, but one capable of setting off major controversy in Africa’s most populous country.
Their emergence has made front-page news, sparking strong denials from the president’s spokesman and suspicion over who could be behind them.
One newspaper quoted an activist suggesting those responsible were “evil-minded,” while another headline declared, “Security Agents Lay Ambush for the Masterminds.”
The move stirs up issues at the heart of politics in Nigeria, which includes 160 million people, 250 ethnic groups and Africa’s biggest oil industry.
Such issues involve which region of the diverse nation will control the presidency — and the vast oil revenues and patronage that come with it.
For some, Jonathan has no right to run in the 2015 vote.
Others say it is too early to talk about 2015 polls in a nation that suffers daily electricity blackouts, debilitating corruption and a long list of other developmental shortcomings.
It is also facing an insurgency from Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in the northern and central regions that has killed hundreds.
The president’s spokesman Reuben Abati told journalists Jonathan had nothing to do with the posters, and some wondered whether it could be his enemies causing trouble.
Jonathan “believes that those doing that are playing games,” Abati said. “There is no reason for the president to engage in any form of scaremongering.
“He has said that by 2014, his position on the 2015 presidential race would be made public.”
The posters, many of which have since been taken down, included a photo of Jonathan with slogans such as “One Good Term Deserves Another.”
– Government ‘free-for-all’ –
One reason Jonathan’s potential 2015 candidacy is so controversial, some argue, is because it was never his turn to be president in the first place.
His 2011 election violated “zoning,” essentially a power-sharing agreement meant to see the ruling Peoples Democratic Party rotate its candidate between the mainly Muslim north and predominately Christian south every two terms.
Jonathan, who had been vice president, became head of state in 2010 after the death of his northern predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua, who was not able to finish his first term before the presidency returned to the south.
The accidental leader ran for office in 2011 elections, handily beating his main rival from the north.
Regional issues are certain to again play a role in 2015. Some even argue that Jonathan cannot legally run since that would give him more than the legally mandated two terms of office.
His supporters dismiss this, saying he was simply serving out Yar’Adua’s term from 2010-2011.
A spokesman for the Arewa Consultative Forum, a group of influential northern politicians, said he did not believe Jonathan was behind the posters and that it was too early to talk about who would run in 2015.
“The idea of starting the politics of 2015 now — that is two and a half years ahead — it is … capable of detracting from governance,” Anthony Sani said.
For Clement Nwankwo, who heads the Policy and Legal Advocacy Centre watchdog group, one of the disappointments of Jonathan’s term is that he has not been able to further put the idea of zoning to rest.
Achieving significant progress with development and infrastructure could have helped demonstrate it does not matter where the president comes from, he said.
According to Nwankwo, Jonathan has failed to do so in a country where most citizens live on less than $2 per day.
“Government is seen today as a free-for-all where officials are basically plundering national resources without anyone calling them to account,” Nwankwo said.
Some argue a northern president would be better placed to end the Boko Haram insurgency, but Nwankwo said that would not get to the root of such problems in a country that also saw major unrest in the oil-producing south before a 2009 amnesty deal.
“What does it matter where a president comes from if it is all still the same vicious cycle of corruption?” he asked.