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Nigeria Election Watch: PDP Tries to Wrest Back Momentum from the APC

Nigeria's game of political musical chairs looks set to continue as the ruling party and opposition − as well as figures within − try to give themselves the advantage.
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Atiku Abubakar (eighth from left, standing) on the campaign trail in 2011. Photograph by Atiku Campaign 2011.

When Nigeria's four main opposition parties decided to band together in February 2013 to create the All Progressives Congress (APC), it sent shockwaves across the country's political landscape. For the first time since Nigeria's return to civilian government in 1999, it looked like the ruling People's Democratic Party's (PDP) dominance could be realistically challenged − especially as increasing numbers of disgruntled PDP members decamped to join the new party. Soon after the APC was established, five PDP governors and 37 members of the House of Representatives defected, while nearly a dozen senators declared their intentions to follow suit.

At the start of 2014 it seemed that all the momentum was with the APC, but this picture has been significantly complicated recently.

At the start the February, the APC recorded its most high-profile defection when former vice-president Atiku Abubakar left the PDP to join the opposition. The event was a big victory for the APC, but was partly diminished by the divisive effect the move had on Abubakar's considerable support base. Only a fraction of his supporters chose to follow him to the APC, with the rest either choosing to remain in the PDP or shift allegiance to the Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM), a party Abubakar had considered joining, instead.

With the 2015 general elections around the corner, Abubakar's defection raises questions over his political ambitions. In 2011, he ran to be the PDP's presidential candidate but lost out to President Goodluck Jonathan, and rumours have emerged that APC leader Bola Tinubu offered Abubakar the party's presidential ticket in return for crossing the floor, something Abubakar denies. Nevertheless, with many similarly prominent figures within the APC, it remains to be seen how all of their ambitions will be accommodated.

Elsewhere, the APC has faced also faced challenges. The 11 PDP senators who wish to defect to the APC have still not been able to do so formally as a court continues to deliberate the legality of such a move. The PDP has regained its majority in the House of Representatives after six APC members defected to the ruling party along with a member of another opposition party. And at the state level, key party leaders in Kwara and Adamawa states also decamped to the PDP. They followed in the footsteps of their counterparts in Kano and Sokoto states, meaning that in all but one of the five states from which governors defected from the PDP to the APC in November 2013, the APC has lost its original party leaders to the PDP.

The growing number and intractable nature of such disagreements reveals a weakness within the APC, but the opposition party itself has pointed the finger at external factors. It accuses the ruling party of using government funds to lure its members, especially legislators, into defecting, and alleges that some of them are being offered as much as between $1 million and $5 million in bribes. The PDP has denied these allegations, calling the APC a sore loser.

What is clear, however, is that this game of musical chairs is far from over as politicians attempt to put themselves in an advantageous position in view of the upcoming party primaries.

As we continue to move through the pre-2015 election period, here are some things of which to take note.

Stonewalling the budget

At the end of January, the APC issued a directive to its members in the National Assembly to block key decisions and legislation, such as the confirmation of the new Service Chiefs and, significantly, the 2014 National Budget. This was met with disappointment from the public, outrage from the PDP, and initial disbelief from some members of the APC who claimed to have no knowledge of the party command. The party leadership, however, insisted that such filibustering was a tool that should be utilised by the opposition as a means of keeping a check on the excesses of the ruling party.

The move had mixed results. On the one hand, it caused only a minimal delay to the Appropriation Bill as the House eventually agreed to consider the budget in the name of overriding national interest. But on the other hand, APC pressure led to the removal of a controversial police chief in Rivers State, who the opposition accused of protecting PDP interests in the state. Since it was not in the long-term interests of the APC to have the budget unduly delayed, the change in Rivers state can be seen as a sufficient accomplishment.

Attempts to control election spending

Legislators from the opposition have also been vocal in contesting the huge sums earmarked in the budget for the fuel subsidy, amnesty programme and a hospital in the presidential villa. It is unsurprising that opposition party members are concerned about an overinflated budget as elections approach. Past events have shown that the line between government coffers and the ruling party’s purse is not always clear-cut at the best of times, let alone in an election year.

The APC’s leadership in the House of Representatives has also gone to court to contest the constitutionality of the Excess Crude Account (ECA), demanding that it be declared illegal. The ECA was created by the government in 2004 to receive proceeds from crude oil that was sold above the benchmark price. According to the Central Bank, the account now stands at less than $2.5 billion, down from a balance of about $11.5 billion in December 2012. If the opposition manages to secure a court injunction to stop spending from ECA, it could create real liquidity problems for the government and the PDP.

A big change in the central bank

The recent suspension of the Central Bank Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, has dampened hopes that the bank may play a role in reducing the fiscal leakages associated with an election year. President Jonathan suspended Sanusi over allegations of financial mismanagement levelled against him by the Financial Reporting Council, accusations Sanusi claims are baseless.

The timing of the removal suggests that there were ulterior motives for his suspension, with the governor having been openly critical about the lack of transparency in the financial operations at Nigeria's state-owned oil company. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding his removal have raised questions about the future independence of the Central Bank. Godwin Emefiele, Jonathan's newly-appointed bank governor is expected to adopt an ultra-conservative stance when he takes office in June.

Changes in the administration

In the last month, several changes have occurred within the Federal Executive Council. The Ministers of Aviation, Niger Delta affairs, Police Affairs, and the Junior Minister of Finance were sacked, while at around the same time, the President’s Chief of Staff resigned.

While the presidency claims that the officials all parted of their own accord , their removal could be seen as part of Jonathan’s attempt to demonstrate a stronger stance on corruption. The case of Aviation Minister, Stella Oduah, is a notable example: two separate investigative committees indicted her in a highly publicised scandal concerning the purchase of bulletproof vehicles at a cost of $1.6 million. More recently, the heads of various agencies in the aviation sector have also been sacked, in addition to the dismissal of the Minister of Sports. Replacements have now been appointed for most of these position, though the posts for aviation and Niger Delta affairs remain open. Further changes are to be expected in the coming months.

National Conference

A final thing to watch is the National Dialogue Conference, which began today, and is being convened by President Jonathan. Billed to last for three months, with 492 delegates expected, the conference is ultimately aimed at forging a strategy for enhancing national unity. The conference may consider any subject matter raised by delegates, but is precluded from discussing the divisibility or dissolubility of the Nigerian nation.

A similar conference in 2005 did not yield any significant results and there are feelings that the current one will prove no different. The opposition has criticised the event for being a time-wasting attempt to divert attention from the disappointing performance of President Jonathan’s administration. It is nevertheless expected that the outcomes of the conference will have an impact on the political negotiations that are bound to take place in the run up to next year’s elections. The National Conference Committee will advise the government on the legal framework, procedures and options for integrating any decisions made as a result of the conference into the 1999 constitution.

Amendment (17/03/2014): The article originally stated that the National Dialogue Conference started on 12 March. It in fact started on 17 March. This has now been amended. (19/03/2014) It was originally stated that the Ministers of Aviation, Niger Delta affairs, Police Affairs, and the Junior Minister of Finance had resigned, when they were in fact sacked. This has been corrected.

A version of this article originally appeared as an AfricaPractice Africa InDepth report.

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