The People's Democratic Party has held power since Nigeria's transition from military rule in 1999, subsequently winning re-election in 2003, 2007 and 2011. While Nigeria has largely been a single-party state since 1999, a power-sharing arrangement within the ruling party has prevented any of the country's regions from being disenfranchised. The system, known as the zoning agreement, regulates the distribution of power among the country's six geographic regions.
The Zoning Agreement
Under the 1999 agreement, the ruling army generals, who were largely northern and ethnically Hausa, stepped down in exchange for a power-sharing system designed to prevent any one region from dominating the country over the long term. Though one party has held power since, the deal has limited Nigeria's tradition of rule by narrow interests and has seen democratic transitions supplant coups d'etat.
The zoning agreement led to the South-West zone holding the presidency from 1999 to 2007 under Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian member of the Yoruba tribe. Obasanjo was selected because of his background as a military ruler and junta insider who could be trusted to protect the Hausa generals while delivering the presidency to a non-Muslim, non-northern region. During the same period, the North-East zone held the vice presidency under Atiku Abubakar, a Muslim and ethnic Hausa-Fulani from Adamawa state. In 2007, the presidency was zoned to the North-West region, when Umaru Yaradua, a Muslim from the Hausa-Fulani ethnic group, took office. The vice presidency was zoned to the South-South region around the Niger Delta under Goodluck Jonathan, an ethnic Ijaw and a Christian.
Yaradua and Jonathan were to have served until 2015, but Yaradua died in 2010. Had they completed their terms, the zoning agreement would likely have assigned the presidency to the South-East region and its dominant Igbo tribe, while the vice presidency would likely have been zoned to the North-Central region.
A Death Disrupts the Agreement
Jonathan's unexpected assumption of the presidency upset the power-sharing dynamic. Northern Nigeria felt it had been cheated out of its chance to hold the presidency, prompting tribal and religious unrest in the region. Islamist militant group Boko Haram began waging an increasingly violent campaign to destabilize northern Nigeria in a bid to make the region ungovernable and force the Jonathan administration to sue for peace and yield the presidency.
Boko Haram's political sponsors are attempting to use political violence to win control for their region in 2015. Should they fail and Jonathan remain at the helm in 2015, northern Nigeria will see additional attacks aimed at keeping the region, perhaps even into Abuja or southern Nigeria. Such attacks could well target non-Nigerians, as happened in the Feb. 11 killing of three North Korean doctors in the northern Yobe state.
Boko Haram's strategy mirrors the campaign conducted by Jonathan supporters in the mid- to late-2000s across Jonathan's oil-producing home region. In that unrest, attacks by the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, a rebel umbrella group, destroyed energy infrastructure such as pipelines and saw expatriate oil workers kidnapped as leverage for political concessions from the central government. Once the region was zoned for the vice presidency and Jonathan was secured in office, however, federal government patronage began to flow to the region's elite. Militant operations sharply declined (though criminal operations such as the theft of crude oil, a practice known as bunkering, have continued).
While it might calm the north, changing the status quo introduces significant risk to Nigerian stability. Most seriously, it could prompt the political elite of the Niger Delta to reactivate the southern militants' campaign. Already, insecurity in the region is rising, as evidenced by an increase in bunkering operations. In the latest incident, ExxonMobil declared force majeure Feb. 8 at its Qua Iboe loading terminal — a mechanism absolving it from contractual obligations it cannot fulfill, in this case as a result of unspecified pipeline damage. Pirate attacks on freighters and crude oil cargo ships in the delta have also been reported.
The Opposition Alliance
The All Progressives Congress could satisfy northern Nigerians' desire for greater political influence while preventing increased destabilization in southern Nigeria. To mollify the north, the merger includes the party of Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, a former junta ruler who represents disgruntled voters from northwestern Nigeria and was the runner-up to Jonathan in 2011. Buhari's Hausa followers in northern Nigeria can expect patronage from him if his party wins. To mollify the south, the alliance has floated the idea of zoning the presidency in 2015 to the South-East region and its Igbo people, who have never held the presidency but could have been in line for it in 2015 had Yaradua survived. The South-East region and the Igbo people have a grievance similar to the Ijaw of the Niger Delta in that they are one of the "Big Three" ethnic groups of Nigeria — representing almost 15 percent of the national population — but have been neglected in the power-sharing accord. If satisfied with the deal, the Igbo can be expected to discourage any resumption of militancy against the energy sector by the neighboring Ijaw.
The alliance also includes the political party from the Greater Lagos region, which has never factored in People's Democratic Party decision-making but scored third place in the 2011 presidential election. The alliance thus includes the Yoruba of Lagos and the South-West region, Nigeria's largest population bloc with approximately 18 percent of the national total; the Igbo of the South-East region; and Buhari's Hausa followers, an ethnic group that is Nigeria's second largest at 16 percent of the population. This combination gives the alliance enough broad-based appeal to lessen the main political stresses in Nigeria.
Political alliances have been tried before in Nigeria, but mostly as too-little-too-late efforts undertaken in the final days ahead of elections. A merger of the four main opposition parties a full two years ahead of national elections is a different matter. While it is too early to tell whether the opposition alliance will defeat the People's Democratic Party, the merger of disgruntled Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa and political elite will pose a significant challenge to the ruling Ijaw.