Ibrahim Babangida was military ruler of Nigeria from 1985 to 1993, and remains politically active. In 2007, Babangida considered running to be the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) candidate, but ultimately withdrew from the race, allowing the late President Umaru Yar’Adua to secure the PDP nomination and ultimately the presidency. During this cycle, Babangida (or “IBB,” as he is sometimes called) has also taken steps to run. A few weeks ago, the emergence of former Vice President Atiku Abubakar as the Northern “consensus candidate,” who will run for the PDP nomination against President Goodluck Jonathan (a Southerner), seemed to put an end to Babangida’s candidacy. Now, however, Babangida may leave the PDP, a decision that could complicate the electoral picture in Nigeria and widen the political split between North and South.
Babangida’s complaint to the PDP about North-South “zoning” issues is the source of speculation that he will quit the party. Here are his remarks:
The party’s constitution backs a “policy of rotation and zoning” of elective offices, which Babangida said means the presidency should alternate between the north and the Christian south. President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian, has said he will seek re-election.
“If the party has become so helpless in the face of these gross violations of its own constitution by its officers and its highest elected representative, then many of us shall have no alternative but to reconsider our continued membership,” Babangida said in a letter to Okwesilieze Nwodo, chairman of the party.
It is not clear what Babangida will do, but the rumors of his potential departure from the PDP are drawing a lot of attention, so much so that Babangida’s team issued a denial that he will abandon the Northern consensus. Rumors are saying that the opposition All Nigerian People’s Party (ANPP) is courting Babangida.
In a further sign of intra-PDP tensions, the party’s National Legal Adviser fired back at Babangida over the zoning issue:
Chief Olusola Oke said: “Though he has not formally made the threat to the party, it will be petty for a man that has tasted power before as a head of state of this country to be seen as championing a sectional interest to the effect that he will abandon the PDP if a northerner failed to secure the presidential ticket of the party in the 2011 general elections.
“He is fully aware that the issue of zoning can only be determined at the national convention of the party; I wonder why he has decided to issue threats on the pages of the newspapers. I will not say that we are going to enlighten him; our first approach will be to convince him that this time around cannot be different from the other occasions.”
President Jonathan’s campaign reacted with even harsher language:
“Clutching at the straw of zoning seems attractive to a drowning man. But regional jingoism is unsuited for a man who once held the highest office in the land.
“IBB should learn to live with his changing political fortune and not further diminish himself by playing games which only political novices should play. If he wants to go to another party, he does not need to blackmail anyone to do so. He should just go. The PDP has taken a decision on zoning and rotation; IBB can either live with it or leave the party”.
This exchange interests me for two reasons, and prompts two questions.
First, if Babangida leaves the PDP and runs for the presidency on another ticket, that could split the North politically and damage Abubakar’s credibility as a consensus candidate within the PDP. A Babangida departure would probably diminish Abubakar’s chances of winning the nomination, and in the general election would siphon votes away from whatever Northern challenger looks strongest against Jonathan – for example, former President Muhammadu Buhari. My question: if Jonathan wins, how will a divided North feel about the election, and what consequences will that feeling have for national unity?
Second, the Jonathan campaign has confirmed its position – already implicit in his decision to run – that the North-South zoning issue should not determine who the PDP chooses as its presidential candidate. The tone of the Jonathan campaign’s reply to Babangida reflects the campaign’s confidence that it can win the argument about zoning and win the nomination for its candidate. Put differently, I do not think Jonathan fears either Babangida or Abubakar, and is willing to have major figures bolt from the party. My question: if Jonathan gets the PDP nomination, how much of his party will he keep together – and how much party unity does he need to prevail the general election?
We will have to stay tuned to see what Babangida does, but even his actions so far have raised a number of important issues for Nigeria.
Here is a CNN interview with Ibrahim Babangida from September, discussing Nigeria’s 1993 elections and his current candidacy: