Analysis - Horsetrading ahead if Nigeria leader to contest polls
LAGOS (Reuters) - Momentum appears to be building towards an election bid by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, but the real political horsetrading has yet to begin if he is to carry the whole country with him.
Jonathan, in his trademark fedora and traditional caftan-like attire, has kept Africa's most populous nation on tenterhooks for months, declining to say whether or not he plans to seek re-election in the polls due in January.
The stakes are high either way in a country that has seen repeated outbreaks of religious and communal violence, and his reticence is born of well-grounded caution, observers say.
Parts of the Muslim north will feel aggrieved if he announces a bid because, as a Christian southerner, they say he would be breaking an unwritten pact that power rotates between north and south every two terms.
But he is the first Nigerian leader from the Ijaw ethnic group in the restive Niger Delta, and a failure to stand would provoke protest in his home region, the heartland of the country's mainstay oil and gas industry.
"Jonathan has continued to tread very carefully as far as making public his plans for the future, as he knows there will be tremendous blowback from his political opponents if and when he announces he will run," intelligence firm Stratfor said.
"It is no secret that Nigeria's northern elites oppose what they see as a southerner trying to usurp their rightful place in power. The level of protest that leading northerners have sustained so far is nothing in comparison to what it will be if and when Jonathan actually declares his candidacy."
At a late-night meeting in the presidential villa on Tuesday, Jonathan told powerful state governors in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) that he intends to stand, one of the governors who attended the meeting said.
Imo State Governor Ikedi Okahim made the remarks in front of television cameras, and his comments were quickly broadcast on both state-run and private stations, leading many analysts to conclude it was a deliberate move to test the waters.
"(Okahim) was most likely preparing the ground for a possible formal declaration next week by the president ... to gauge initial reaction," said Kayode Akindele, a Lagos-based director at financial consultancy Greengate Strategic Partners.
"The president will only declare if he is confident of winning the primaries ... There is a feeling of renewed swagger in the recent steps of the president and his close circle but real horsetrading of the PDP primaries commences next week."
ACTIONS NOT WORDS
Jonathan kept his cards close to his chest in a message to Muslims on Thursday to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan, reaffirming his commitment to ensure free and fair elections and pledging to push ahead with reforms.
"With your continued support and goodwill, we shall, in the coming months carry forward our plans to further stabilise all sectors of our economy, improve national infrastructure and power supply," he said.
His recent actions have been more telling than his words.
Jonathan replaced the heads of the armed forces, police and state security service on Wednesday, a day after the electoral commission announced the timetable for polls.
He named Major General O.A. Ihejirika as his new chief of army staff, the first time since Nigeria's 1967-70 civil war that anyone from the southeastern Igbo ethnic group has held the top post in the most powerful branch of the armed forces.
Should the rotation agreement be upheld and the next presidential term goes to the north, the Igbo would feel their turn had come in 2015 when it rotates back to the south. A Jonathan win in 2011 would scupper that hope, and Ihejirika's nomination is seen by some as a way of ensuring loyalty.
The election timetable announced this week says party primaries begin on Saturday and run to the end of October.
Jonathan has already been meeting former heads of state and other political heavyweights including his rivals in recent weeks, such as ex-military leader Ibrahim Babangida and former vice president Atiku Abubakar, both of whom have said they will run against him to seek the PDP nomination.
The state governors form a powerful caucus in the PDP and winning their support will be key to Jonathan's chances of success. Those from his home region have already vowed to back him, but those from the north have stopped short of doing so, saying simply they recognise his right to contest.
Several northern governors were absent at Tuesday's meeting with Jonathan, having travelled to Saudi Arabia to mark the end of Ramadan, This Day newspaper said, without naming its sources.
The newspaper said none of those present raised objections to Jonathan's plans to run, but that they said another meeting should be held next week with all governors attending.
"Caution is an instinct that has served Jonathan well in a remarkable political career," said Antony Goldman, London-based head of PM Consulting and a Nigeria expert.
"If he declares publicly, it will be because he is confident of winning and of holding the PDP together. His declaration is already so widely anticipated that any early leak, accidental or deliberate, is unlikely to have a significant impact."
(Writing by Nick Tattersall; editing by Ralph Boulton)
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