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May 13, 2010 | 20:04 GMT

Nigeria: Jonathan Chooses His Vice President

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on May 13 nominated Kaduna state Governor Namadi Sambo to be the country's new vice president following the death of former President Umaru Yaradua. By picking Sambo, a relatively unknown politician from northern Nigeria, Jonathan has declined handing the office to the kind of powerful politician that would clearly indicate he is not interested in pursuing his own term as president in the planned 2011 elections. An unwritten agreement between Nigeria's northern and southern regions requires the presidency to rotate between regions every eight years, and while Jonathan has given no public statement to indicate he will upset this balance, picking a vice president with few influential backers may mean he is considering a run in 2011.
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan nominated Kaduna state governor Namadi Sambo for the post of vice president May 13, a calculated choice which comes just over a week after the death of former President Umaru Yaradua. Yaradua's passing created a vacancy in the vice presidential position, as Jonathan — though serving as Nigeria's "ceremonial" president since January and "acting" president since February — was originally Yaradua's deputy. Sambo's nomination must now be confirmed by the National Assembly. By choosing a northerner, Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger Delta, has complied with the recent Nigerian tradition which mandates the president and vice president must come from each of the country's two general regions. But by choosing a relatively unknown northerner, the now-official president has signaled that he is still contemplating whether or not to run for a term of his own in Nigeria's upcoming national elections. Jonathan's choice over whom to nominate as his deputy was seen by all as a signal of his intentions to run for his own term as president in the upcoming national elections. Had he tapped a political heavyweight with a long history of service in the upper levels of government to be his vice president, Jonathan would have in effect been conceding the next election to one of these men. (The media floated around a short list of potential vice presidential candidates this past week, like National Security Adviser Aliyu Gusau and former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, among others.) In that case Jonathan's nominee would have likely used the vice presidential post as a stepping stone toward receiving the presidential nomination from the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). (In Nigeria, a PDP nomination for president is tantamount to an election victory.) Instead, Jonathan picked Sambo, who does not come from what STRATFOR sources refer to as the "core north," which means the historic Hausa-Fulani community which has traditionally produced the main power brokers in modern Nigeria. Sambo is a northerner, but not a northerner who can clearly command the same amount of political loyalty as some of the more high-profile candidates reportedly being considered in the days immediately following Yaradua's death. In choosing a political lightweight such as Sambo, Jonathan has bought himself more time. This is not to say that Jonathan, who is set to finish out the current term in May 2011, is signaling a definite intent to run. Elections are still months away (currently scheduled for April 2011, though likely to be moved up to January), as are PDP primaries, which may occur by September. But this selection indicates another careful move on the part of the Nigerian president not to end his political future prematurely. Jonathan has options. His decision on whether or not to run for his own term as president is not necessarily an all-or-nothing affair. Running in 2011 would of course represent a serious risk, as it would upset the unwritten "zoning" agreement that was reached between northern and southern elites of the ruling PDP on the eve of the country's transition to democracy in 1999. High-ranking PDP members have openly voiced opposition on more than one occasion to the idea of Jonathan trying to seize what belongs to the north. This has been countered by calls from governors (as well as militants) from the Niger Delta, Jonathan's home region, that the current president should take advantage of the historic chance for a native of the Delta to seize a four-year presidential term for the first time in Nigeria's 50-year post-independence history. The notion that Jonathan would accept a return to being the vice president in 2011 is unlikely, of course, due both to the simple fact that the human ego probably would not allow for it, as well as the importance of momentum in politics. Were Jonathan to ever want to be president again, it would be hard to take a step down at this stage. More feasible is the idea that Jonathan could sit this next term out, allow the north to have its full eight years (as prescribed by the zoning agreement), display his loyalty to the party and make a run in 2015 when the zoning agreement calls for the president to come from the south. It is impossible to say that this would still remain a possibility if he passed on his chance now, however, because much could happen by 2015. (There is also the very remote possibility that a fresh northern president could, after four years in office, attempt to argue that "zoning" applies to individuals and not the general north versus south dichotomy, and seek to stay in power through 2023, though he would have a very hard time making this case.) It is prescient that in 2007 both Yaradua and Jonathan were considered political lightweights when they were nominated to the PDP presidential ticket. So while Sambo may not be viewed as a serious contender for president now, this fact alone cannot rule out a future for him in Nigerian politics. What is undeniable, however, is that Jonathan is proceeding with caution. Jonathan has a reputation for prudence, so it is logical that he would choose Sambo, as the nomination generates for him the least number of enemies compared to what would have transpired had he chosen from the list of those considered capable of translating the deputy position into a straight shot for the presidency. As a general rule, though, Jonathan refuses to speak on the topic of his ambitions, and when he is cornered into answering questions on the issue, speaks in such vague terms that no one can accuse him of trying to subvert the political order in Nigeria. He has his supporters who openly advocate that he run, as well as supporters who understand the imperative that he keep quiet on such desires. This was evidenced by a May 12 statement from one of his aides which created headlines across the country proclaiming that Jonathan plans to run in 2011 — words which were slightly misreported, but which nonetheless drew an immediate retraction from the aide, as well as a public rebuke from a separate assistant to the president. Jonathan, of course, has not commented on the incident, which was possibly generated as a feeler for the public response it would receive.
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