analysisBy Lagun Akinloye and James Schneider
In what could prove to be the most significant political event since the return of electoral democracy in 1999, a powerful faction has broken away from Nigeria's ruling party.
On Saturday, the slow-burning crisis within Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) burst out into the open.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, together with seven sitting state governors and a number of other senior party figures, stormed out of the party's national convention and announced the formation of a rival PDP. The dissident PDP leaders object to alleged mismanagement by President Goodluck Jonathan, his intention to stand again in 2015, and party chairman Bamanga Tukur's stranglehold over the PDP.
Abubakar described the move as an attempt to "save the PDP from the antics of a few desperadoes who have no democratic temperament and are bent on hijacking the party for selfish ends."
Downplaying the impact of the faction's formation, Jonathan's media advisor Reno Omokri told Think Africa Press that the dissidents are "good students of history." Noting that another split failed in 2006, he went on, "Since 1998 only the PDP has remained intact. Other parties formed with it have faded away. The reason the PDP has staying power is because it has an inbuilt conflict resolution mechanism, which is at work even now."
At the heart of the rival PDP's complaints is the alleged authoritarianism within the party. The catalyst for the split was the disqualification of candidates, seen as allied to Jonathan's rivals, for the party's National Working Committee (NWC).
At the press conference announcing the split, Kawu Abubakar Baraje, national chairman for the rival PDP, declared that "we have taken it upon ourselves to rescue the party from its dictatorial leadership." According to Baraje, the combined leadership of Jonathan and Tukur had brought in "political repression, restrictions of freedom of association and arbitrary suspension of members."
After winning the 2011 elections and gaining widespread support for his Transformation Agenda, Jonathan's lacklustre attempts at reform, the fuel subsidy scandal and his propensity to attack critics have antagonised broad swathes of the party.
The president's close ally Tukur allegedly used his power within the party to further his own causes. In 2012 he oversaw the dissolution of the PDP's local chapter in his home state of Adamawa and it is widely speculated that Tukur is trying to line up his son to be the next governor of the state. This meddling has been enough to drive sitting governor Murtala Nyarko, a former Jonathan loyalist, into the rival PDP camp.
No room for critical voices
Several prominent rivals to Jonathan have suffered attempts at intimidation by the PDP leadership. Rotimi Amaechi, a leading member of the breakaway group and the current governor of Rivers State, found out the hard way that Jonathan was not willing to tolerate the ambition of potential rivals.
Rumours of Amaechi's aspirations to run for vice president in 2015 were reported to have caused alarm within Jonathan's inner circle. In July, five members of the Rivers State House of Assembly tried to impeach by force the Speaker of the House, a close ally of Amaechi. Police and military stood by as the lawmakers and their supporters attacked the House.
Amaechi had already been suspended from the party following his re-election as chairman of the powerful Nigeria Governors' Forum (NGF), in a defeat of Jonathan's preferred candidate, Jonah Jang of Plateau State. The official PDP line was that the suspension proceeded from a violation of party rules regarding a local council issue.
It appears Jonathan has also sought to put pressure on Senator Abubakar Bukola Saraki, the former Governor of Kwara State and Amaechi's predecessor as chairman of the NGF. Saraki was the key figure in bringing to light the more than $6 billion fraud in the fuel subsidy regime.
The past two years have seen Saraki brought in for questioning by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) and the Special Fraud unit, in connection to alleged wrongdoing during his tenure as head of the Societé General Bank Nigeria. On each occasion, Saraki was released without charge. This game of cat and mouse has often been used in Nigeria as a method to harass and intimidate political opponents.
Even former presidents are not safe. Olusegun Obasanjo, who led Nigeria from 1976 to 1979 and again from 1997 to 2007, has also come under attack, despite his instrumental role in bringing Jonathan to power. It was Obasanjo who picked Jonathan, then a relatively unknown governor, to be vice president to Obasanjo's successor Umaru Musa Yar'Adua in 2007.
Following Yar'Adua's death in 2010, Jonathan was able to step in and finish his term. Nevertheless, earlier this year Jonathan asserted his independence from his early supporter by suspending Obasanjo loyalists from the NWC, including the National Secretary, Olagunsoye Oyinlola, National Auditor, Bode Mustapha and the National Vice Chairman in the South West, Segun Oni.
Failures in government
Nigerians have seen little improvement in their lives, despite the N6.7 trillion ($42 billion) Nigeria earned from crude oil export in the first half of 2013. Corruption continues unabated and few convictions result from the rare occasions when an alleged culprit is brought to court. There has been insufficient political will from the top to fight corruption, leading the chairman of the EFCC to complain that, for the biggest culprits, financial and political might can buy effective immunity.
While oil bunkering is at an all-time high, the government has awarded a contract worth $103 million for pipeline surveillance to former bunkerer and powerful militant, Tompolo. In April the Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala lamented that Nigeria was losing over 10 per cent of its crude oil production to theft.
Much of the country's north still fears frequent attacks from the militant Islamic sect Boko Haram, despite a state of emergency declared in the north eastern states of Adamawa, Yobe and Borno, and notwithstanding the N1 trillion ($6.1bn) ringfenced for security in the 2013 national budget.
"Nigeria is in a difficult time in its history and it can either get things right economically, socially and politically or fall into the category of a failed state," said Abbass Isah Mohammed, Senior Lecturer of Political Science at Ahmadu Bello University. He told Think Africa Press, "It is up to those who are in charge to steer it in the right direction."
The extent of the mismanagement of the Transformation Agenda is perhaps most evident in the failure to pass two key pieces of legislation, the National Health Bill (NHB) and the Petroleum Industry Bill (PIB), which, despite some progress in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, are yet to become law.
Fears of a ruthless response
How Jonathan responds to the current crisis will set the tone for Nigeria's continued democratic development and the fortunes of the PDP. Omokri is quick to reassure that every effort is being made to resolve the dispute, reporting that President Jonathan and the party elders are meeting with aggrieved parties.
"President Jonathan is naturally open to dialogue," he says, "and this issue will be resolved through dialogue. As the bones are stronger after a fracture the PDP will emerge stronger after the resolution".
A resolution to the split would likely require Jonathan giving in to the two basic demands of the rival PDP: first, that Tukur leave his post as party chairman; second, a guarantee of free and open primaries for the PDP's 2015 ticket.
Political commentator and writer Tolu Ogunlesi told Think Africa Press, that "the way things are going Jonathan is going to be forced to sacrifice Tukur." However, Ogunlesi believes that Tukur's departure will not solve the matter on its own - the problem runs deeper. "This is a battle for the control of the soul of the PDP, and sacrificing Tukur is likely to be, at this stage, too superficial to achieve anything."
Raymond Eyo of The Scoop Nigeria also doubts a quick resolution: "The hardline conditions advanced by "New PDP" for the resolution of the PDP crisis suggest it could be a long battle," he says.
In agreeing to guarantee a level playing field for the 2015 party primaries, Jonathan faces the risk of losing. However, as Galaxy TV political analyst Gbola Oba observes, Jonathan will still be a formidable opponent, not least on account of "the enormous power of the president to dispense largess."
Ogunlesi believes that to counter general perceptions of Jonathan as a weak and meek president, he might borrow from Obasanjo's rule-book, and draw lessons from the former president's violent crackdown when PDP dissidents set up a parallel secretariat in June 2006.
"So," Ogunlesi continues, "let's expect some ruthless clamping down, which may involve the police. But considering that everyone knows Jonathan is no Obasanjo, my feeling is that the dissidents are going to refuse to be intimidated by the president. The stand-off could therefore be a protracted one."
If this develops into a fight to the political death between Jonathan and his rivals, the split could mean the end of the PDP as we know it. Overtures are being made by opposition governors under the aegis of the Progressive Governors Forum who welcomed the PDP split. The opposition body referred to the split as "a necessary and inevitable result of repressive rule of the PDP."
If Jonathan responds with more aggression, the breakaway PDP could align with the newly formed opposition APC alliance against Jonathan and his desired candidates in 2015, spelling the end for PDP hegemony. To save his party and his political career, Jonathan must either reconcile with his rivals or dig the trenches for a long political fight.
Lagun Akinloye, a British Nigerian, studied Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds. He is particularly interested in the history and politics of West Africa, specifically Nigeria.
In addition to his role at Think Africa Press, Lagun is an executive member of the Central Association of Nigerians in the the(CANUK)Email: email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @L_Akinloye.
James Schneider is the Editor-in-Chief of Think Africa Press. He read Theology at the University of Oxford and has a particular interest in the study of political economy, patterns of investment, and perspectives from the Global South. He is also a frequent commentator on African affairs for Monocle24 radio. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @schneiderhome.