Obasanjo picks 'puppet' successor in elections

Steve Bloomfield,Africa Correspondent
Monday 18 December 2006 01:00

Nigeria's ruling party has chosen the man they hope will succeed Olusegun Obasanjo as president of Africa's most populous nation in elections next year, amid doubts that the polls will be free and fair.

Umara Yar'Adua, governor of Katsina state in the Muslim-dominated north, was selected as the candidate for the People's Democratic Party (PDP) after months of bitter political wrangling during which the vice-president, and presidential aspirant, Atiku Abubakar, was kicked out of the party.

If the elections, scheduled for 21 April, run smoothly, it will be the first time Nigeria has made a transition from one democratically elected leader to another. Since independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has suffered several military coups. The country's oil wealth - it is the largest producer of crude oil in Africa pumping out 2.4 million barrels a day - has made political power very enticing.

Little of that wealth has found its way to Nigeria's citizens, particularly in the oil-producing Niger Delta where militants have stepped up a campaign of violence against foreign oil firms. Gunmen last week invaded an oilfield and kidnapped three people.

Mr Yar'Adua has chosen the governor of Bayelsa state in the Niger Delta, Goodluck Jonathan, as his running mate in an apparent attempt to diminish the militants' support. Pres-ident Obasanjo had wanted to stay for a third four-year term but efforts to change the constitution, which allows for just two terms, were defeated by MPs despite enormous pressure from Mr Obasanjo and allegations of bribes offered to politicians willing to back the change.

There have been allegations that Mr Yar'Adua's nomination had not been democratic.

"If there had been a normal democratic process there would be no chance of him being elected," said Nnamdi Obasi, a senior analyst for the influential conflict resolution think-tank, International Crisis Group. "It has been seen as a charade, a mockery of democracy, and has deepened the division within the party."

Little is known about Mr Yar'Adua, a former chemistry lecturer who is described as colourless and reclusive. His candidacy owes almost everything to his closeness to Mr Obasanjo and opponents are likely to accuse him of being a puppet for the President.

"Yar'Adua is seen as a soft personality," said Mr Obasi. "It is probably comfortable for Obasanjo that when he leaves power he has someone who can be manipulated. Obasanjo can still pull the strings."

Mr Yar'Adua is one of the few state governors not to have been implicated in financial scandal. But his selection causes problems for the candidates likely to be his main poll rivals. Nigeria's estimated 150 million population is split between a Christian south and a mostly Muslim north. President Obasanjo, a Christian, is from the south. By choosing a Muslim northerner he hopes to cut the support of other northern candidates.

The likely nominee for the main opposition party, the All Nigeria People's Party, is a former military ruler, General Muhammadu Buhari, who lost the last two elections to President Oba-sanjo. He is from Mr Yar'-Adua's state.

Local analysts allege that political violence, including murder of candidates and intimidation of voters, is also increasing and attempts to improve voter registration have collapsed.

"It is going to be a really flawed election," said Mr Obasi. "There is no doubt about it."

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