By Lagun Akinloye
On Friday 24 May, governors from 35 of Nigeria’s 36 states met in Abuja to elect the new chairman of the Nigeria Governors’ Forum (NGF). Incumbent chairman and governor of oil-rich Rivers State, Rotimi Amaechi, defeated the president’s preferred candidate, Jonah Jang, by 19 votes to 16.
The result has left the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in disarray: Amaechi has subsequently been suspended by the party, some have belatedly declared Jang the rightful winner. Both men presently claim to be chairman of the forum.
Hudu Abdullahi, a senior lecturer in political science at Ahmadu Bello University, told Think Africa Press: "The political situation that is following the NGF elections is rooted in the ambition of Jonathan to stand again in 2015."
With PDP fractures visibly deepening, many have argued that this is the clearest sign yet that Goodluck Jonathan’s ability to unite the party is fading. With the 2015 election looming ever closer, is Jonathan losing his grip on power?
Preventing Democratic Pressures Ever since its establishment in 1999, the National Governors’ Forum has been a PDP stronghold. It has been chaired by five different men, all from the ruling PDP: Abdullahi Adamu of Nasarawa Sate (1999-2004), Victor Attah, the former governor of Akwa Ibom State(2004-2006), Lucky Igbinedion of Edo State (2006-2007), Bukola Saraki of Kwara state (2007-2011) and most recently Amaechi from 2011-2013.
Although it is not formally enshrined in the Constitution, the forum has played an influential role in Nigerian politics – most recently in the removal and partial reinstatement of the fuel subsidy in January 2012. And the author Michael Nnebe last week warned against underestimating the NGF:
"To think that the NGF is not powerful would be a costly mistake. As powerful as Obasanjo appeared to be while in office, he had to get the approval of governors forum before he could successfully present Yar'Adua's name at the PDP primaries in 2007."
However, under the stewardship of Amaechi things have changed. A move towards a more independent stance has not been well received. The presidency and pro-government political observers have accused the NGF of strong-arming the political centre on various national issues and transforming itself in a pressure group, whose authority rivals the executive.
The chosen one The president and PDP accordingly had vested interests in the outcome of the May 24 elections. Selecting the preferred candidate was initially a two-horse race between Katsina state’s governor Ibrahim Shema and Isa Yuguda of Bauchi state. However, with both men seemingly unwilling to make way for the other, a third candidate - Plateau state’s Jonah Jang – became the consensus choice.
Amaechi was approached to tow the party line and asked to withdraw his candidacy. He refused, and defeated Jang in what from video footage appeared to be a free and fair election.
But in the immediate aftermath, disgruntled governors held a press conference to declare Jang – contrary to secret ballot voting - the rightful winner. A letter of endorsement, which featured the signatures of 19 pro-presidential governors, was held up as evidence that Jang had won.
Reinforcing divisions The incident has caused a de facto split in the NGF, one that has played into the hands of the opposition parties.
On May 25, Jang promised to “unite members of the forum and work for the interest of the forum and country”. On the same day, Amaechi outlined similar commitments at the NGF headquarters:
“That is the mandate that was freely given and I will stick to that mandate. I think that it is up to Nigerians to know that nothing pays more than democracy.”
Rival parties have been quick and unrelenting in their condemnation. Lai Mohammed, publicity secretary for the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) described the presidency’s recognition of Jang as the NGF chairman as a “travesty of democracy”, while the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) branded the president’s actions “shameful”.
Northern sole The NGF’s divisions have manifested themselves in a variety of different fora.
Last Thursday, the NGF’s parallel northern institution, the Northern Governors’ Forum, met in Kaduna. Only 5 of a potential 19 northern governors were present – with widespread absences believed a show of solidarity with the president’s stance.
Hours before the NGF elections, they had decided to bloc vote for Jang as chairman. However, results showed that a number of Northern governors had likely reneged on the agreement. Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum Babangida Aliyu is suspected of voting for Amaechi, and rumours he will be removed from his post are gaining momentum.
The situation is a difficult one for Jonathan though, he must be careful not to appear too autocratic and alienate his northern allies. On June 5, the Sokoto State Governor Aliyu Wamakko was suspended by the PDP for alleged insubordination – a move criticised by pro-democracy groups.
Toppling Jonathan Hudu Abdullahi told Think Africa Press, “if the PDP were to split or splinter because of the governors’ forum fallout, Nigeria could witness an increased level of political violence, which is not good for a country that is already fragile.”
It may be far too early to speak of an official split within the PDP, but there is enough to suggest that, even at the highest levels, Goodluck Jonathan’s has a lot of work to do to unite the party.
Former president Olusegun Obasanjo, past military head of state Ibrahim Babangida and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar each represent factions of a powerful, elite political class that are trying to maintain a degree of dominance within the party.
Last week’s Democracy Day celebrations, hosted by Jonathan, were revealing. While three former heads of state were present - Shehu Shagari , Ernest Shonekon and Yakubu Gowan – Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar were all conspicuously absent.
Obasanjo, who played an instrumental role in Jonathan’s rise to presidency instead chose to attend the first Jigawa state Investment forum - hosted by the man some feel is his preferred candidate for the 2015 elections, Sule Lamido. At the forum, Obasanjo stressed, “you can help someone to get a job but you cannot help that person do the job”. This was seen as a thinly-veiled broadside against the incumbent president.
It may be tempting for Jonathan to dismiss these political heavyweights as yesterday’s men, but he should do so at his own peril. The influence of these former rulers still counts for a lot in a country where a large section of elites were single-handedly created by or under Babangida and Obasanjo.
In the run-up to the 2015 elections, two main interest groups are slowly forming: President Jonathan and the majority of the PDP leadership on one side, former presidents, some Northern governors and a minority within his own party – like Ameachi – on the other side.
If these two groups are not united, 2015 may become a year to forget for the ruling PDP.