ABUJA: Nigeria’s ruling party on Friday chose incumbent Goodluck Jonathan as its presidential candidate for April elections after he defeated a primary challenge from the mainly Muslim north.
Jonathan, 53, thrust into the presidency in May after the death of his predecessor Umaru Yar’Adua, is now be favored to win the April 9 vote which is viewed as one of the most important in the history of Africa’s most populous nation.
The ruling Peoples Democratic Party has won every presidential vote since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.
Jonathan’s primary win also means he has upended an arrangement within the PDP that sees its candidates rotated between the north and south every two terms.
The rule is variously viewed as an outdated policy pandering to ethnic politics and a power-sharing deal helping hold the vast country together.
"This mandate is unique as it makes a decisive statement in the history of our country," the president said after he was declared winner of a vote by party delegates. "This is a time for the country to move forward in unity."
Jonathan had been expected to win the party primary, despite the challenge from ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar, who had the backing of a group of elite politicians from northern Nigeria.
Jonathan won handily with 2,736 votes compared to Abubakar’s 805. A spokesman for Abubakar, however, alleged rigging and intimidation.
"There’s nothing to suggest the delegates were themselves allowed the right to choose," said Shehu Garba, referring to a system that saw separate boxes set up for each state where delegates placed their ballots.
He contended the system made it too easy to discern who voted for which candidate.
Chairman of the opposition National Action Council Olapade Agoro said the the PDP primary was a charade.
"The whole arrangement was staged-managed and it will not stand. I see Abubakar contesting the outcome in court," he said, adding that Jonathan had been favored to win because of the "untransparent process."
He advised the opposition parties to form an alliance in order to defeat the PDP in the April vote. "The outcome of the primary is a challenge to the opposition and we have to capitalize on this to wrest power from the PDP."
But the president’s kinsmen from the Niger Delta hailed his nomination.
"Jonathan’s endorsement is victory for justice and equality. It shows that every Nigerian irrespective of tribe and religion can aspire to the utmost leadership position in the country," said Joseph Eva, leader of Ijaw Monitoring Group, a think tank in the region.
"It will enable the president to further consolidate his achievements since he took over from Yar’Adua in May," he said.
Eva however warned that Jonathan’s choice could trigger tensions in the country because his main opponent has refused to congratulate him.
"It was disturbing that Abubakar did not congratulate the president. This portends serious dangers for the polity. We hope it will not trigger a chain of events that will be inimical to the unity of Nigeria," he warned.
While Jonathan will be favored in the April election, there are signs the vote may be more competitive than other recent ballots in Africa’s largest oil producer, particularly if opposition parties succeed in forming an alliance against him.
Nigeria now heads into the final months of an election season that has already been marred by an upsurge in violence that has left scores dead.
Heavy security was deployed for the primary in Abuja, which has been hit by two bomb attacks since October.
In one of the attacks, twin car bombs went off on October 1 near Eagle Square, where Nigerian leaders and foreign dignitaries had gathered to commemorate the country’s 50th year of independence from Britain.
Some 17,000 police officers were deployed Thursday, and several blocks around Eagle Square were cordoned off.