Saturday, September 18, 2010

Nigeria's president kicks off election campaign

President Goodluck Jonathan, who was thrust into office after Nigeria's elected leader died earlier this year, formally launched a presidential bid Saturday that could split the oil-rich nation's ruling party along religious lines.

Jonathan danced his way to the lectern to deliver his speech in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja, dressed in a gray caftan and black bowler hat traditional to his home in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

He recounted growing up without shoes and foregoing meals, a reality faced by many in Africa's most populous nation. And he promised to fight corruption and bring more electricity to the country.

Every child "will be able to realize his God-given potentials, unhindered by tribe or religion and unrestricted by improvised political inhibitions," Jonathan told the thousands gathered to hear his speech. "My story holds out the promise of a new Nigeria."

But Jonathan's unlikely political career now challenges a political formula used to keep order in the country's ruling party.

Jonathan, a Christian from the country's south, became president after the May 5 death of elected leader Umaru Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north.

An unwritten power-sharing agreement within the ruling People's Democratic Party calls for the presidency to alternate between candidates from Nigeria's mainly Christian south and Muslim north. However, Yar'Adua died while still in his first term and leaders in the north had expected him to serve two.

Seeing that as a potential weakness, former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, both Muslims from the north, say they'll seek the ruling party's nomination. That sets up what could be a fierce fight through the party's October primaries.

Political observers warn that competition could split party elites, shaking the only force strong enough to manhandle Nigeria's unruly elections.

"Jonathan's act can only create more division and distrust between the northern part of Nigeria and the south that have hitherto enjoyed decades of political solidarity and cordiality," said Shehu Sani, president of the Civil Rights Congress in Nigeria. "Jonathan's declaration has sown the seed of discord and can only heighten political tension and acrimony along (the) regional line."

Still, Nigeria remembers its Biafran civil war, which left as many as 1 million dead from hunger and violence in the late 1960s. Western diplomats also want a stable and credible election in a nation that is one of the world's top crude oil suppliers.

In his speech Saturday, Jonathan again promised the public that the nation's elections in January would be free and fair. However, his guarantee comes as equipment needed to register the country's estimated 70 million voters has yet to even be ordered.

Jonathan also made the promises of his predecessors: to fight corruption, to repair Nigeria's decrepit roadways and overhaul its oil-dependent economy. Those commitments have never been fulfilled, though some Nigerians appear willing to hear them again and give the president-by-chance an opportunity.

And the quiet marine biologist has surprised Nigeria's political class so far, including announcing his candidacy Wednesday via a message on the social networking website Facebook.

As Jonathan looked out the overflowing crowd gathered for his speech, it appeared even he felt carried away by the circumstance.

"This is more than a crowd," the president said. "It is almost like a revolution."

Associated Press Writer Jon Gambrell in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report. 

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