Unofficial campaigning for April’s presidential elections in Nigeria began at least five months ago, when incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan announced his intention to run, but this week marked the start of official campaigning.
Following several extensions, Nigeria’s voter registration period ended yesterday. I was unable to locate current figures for registered voters, but last Thursday the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) said that 55 million voters (of 70 million eligible voters) had already registered. INEC predicted that the number would hit 62 million by the end of the registration period. As candidates begin to compete for the attention of those voters, many eyes are on Jonathan.
The President headed first to Nigeria’s Middle Belt, an area home to large numbers of both Christians and Muslims. The AP reports that he launched his campaign Monday in Lafia, capital of Nasarawa State (in the Middle Belt). Tuesday saw Jonathan in Ibadan, in Oyo State in Nigeria’s South West (outside the Middle Belt). Jonathan is scheduled to head to Minna, the capital of Niger State (in the Middle Belt), where he will campaign with Governor Muazu Babangida Aliyu.
These visits serve multiple purposes. For one thing, they project the power of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP). At each stop, Jonathan has appeared flanked by major PDP figures: former Presidents Olusegun Obasanjo and Ibrahim Babangida, Jonathan’s Vice President Nnmadi Sambo, and various state officials. Second, the visits give Jonathan an opportunity to go on the offensive while staying in areas the PDP controls – in Ibadan, he called for the PDP to take Lagos from the opposition (note, though, that he did not go to Lagos to say this). Third, appearances in the Middle Belt offer Jonathan the chance to isolate his Northern rivals and prevent them from gaining support outside of the North. In the Middle Belt, Jonathan can also work to present his political and cultural credentials to (Northern) Hausa society as a whole: in Lafia, he “greeted the crowd…in the northern Hausa language and was flanked by his northern running mate, Nnmadi Sambo,” who is of course a Northerner.
This third factor – shoring up support in the Middle Belt and making inroads into the North – is potentially the most important for the logic of the early campaign. As VOA writes,
[Jonathan's] candidacy disrupts an informal regional power-sharing deal that would have given the ruling-party nomination to a northern candidate.
This means Jonathan needs to do well in central states to offset what could be opposition from some northern voters. The president’s three main challengers are all from the north, which could split the vote there. Political observers say the opposition’s best chance of defeating the ruling party is forcing the vote to a second round where President Jonathan would face a single opponent, likely from the north.
A PDP spokesman objected to such framing, saying that the choice of Lafia as a launching point reflected the PDP’s status as a national party and was part of the natural rotation that the party does from cycle to cycle. I don’t see why concentrating on the Middle Belt can’t be both a means of emphasizing the PDP’s national status and an acknowledgment of political competition over divided areas, but it will be interesting to see where Jonathan goes next and how party officials explain the logic of his moves.