* Jonathan's handling of bombs sparks propaganda war
* Northern opponents unite against president
* Row risks overshadowing election campaign
(Adds comments from president's campaign manager)
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, Oct 7 Less than a month after launching
his election campaign in a blaze of optimism, Nigerian President
Goodluck Jonathan has found himself fighting a potentially
damaging propaganda war over last week's car bombs.
Jonathan's assertion that rebels from his Niger Delta home
region were not wholly responsible for twin bomb attacks near an
independence day parade last Friday has laid him open to a
barrage of criticism from rivals who accuse him of partisanship.
As the first head of state from the southern Niger Delta,
Jonathan already faced a tough battle convincing some in the
ruling party to back his election bid and jettison a gentleman's
agreement that means the next president should be a northerner.
The unwritten pact in the People's Democratic Party (PDP) is
meant to prevent tribalism and regional rivalries becoming a
factor in federal politics by ensuring power rotates every two
terms between north and south. [ID:nLDE68H047]
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND)
claimed last Friday's blasts in statements emailed to media.
But Jonathan's assertion that the bombs had nothing to do
with the Niger Delta and that MEND's name was used as a cover,
along with suggestions from the authorities that associates of
his main rival, former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, may be
involved have infuriated and united his northern opponents.
"The man ... who only a few weeks ago moved us with lofty
words of hope and a vision of transformation, shot himself in
the foot and then put the bloody foot in his mouth," wrote Tolu
Ogunlesi, a journalist on Nigeria's Next newspaper.
"The incident momentarily stripped him of his presidential
garb and wrapped him in the gaudy garments of a tribal
chieftain," he said.
Babangida and three other northerners running against
Jonathan issued a joint statement accusing him of using the
blasts as a pretext to intimidate his opponents. Another group
of northern politicians called on him to resign. [ID:nLDE6941BB]
Their fury was piqued by the brief detention of Babangida's
campaign director Raymond Dokpesi for questioning over the
blasts by the secret service on Monday. [ID:nN05292012]
The presidency said the investigations were being carried
out on the back of U.S. and British as well as Nigerian
intelligence and that anybody could be invited for questioning.
Jonathan's campaign director struck back on Thursday.
"The president did not say that it is not MEND, but what he
said is that it is not only MEND that was responsible," Sarki
Tafida told a news conference in Abuja.
"The provocative comments of some of our yesterday's men
laced with demeaning ethnic chauvinism suggests they do not mind
if Nigeria explodes if they don't acquire power at all cost."
Jonathan started his election campaign almost three weeks
ago on a high, having unveiled plans to privatise the power
sector and end chronic power shortages, better manage the
country's oil savings and fight criminality. [ID:nLDE68H06J]
He pledged a new era of leadership "uncontaminated by the
prejudices of the past" and his campaign team hoped the momentum
would carry him into the primaries, originally due this month.
But the timetable was revised to allow the electoral
authorities to overhaul voter lists, handing his northern rivals
more time to steel themselves.
The bomb blasts were another blow to his strategy.
Beneath all the finger pointing and rhetoric, none of
Nigeria's political class emerge well from the episode.
Jonathan was vice president when Henry Okah, a senior
militant figure charged in Johannesburg this week with
conspiring to carry out the attacks, had treason and gun-running
charges against him dropped under an amnesty deal.
Aliyu Gusau, another northern presidential candidate who has
criticised Jonathan, was the country's national security adviser
until three weeks ago. Security experts say Friday's attacks
would have been months in the planning.
Babangida's opponents say his assertion that Jonathan does
not have a firm grip on national security is rich coming from a
man largely remembered for his 1993 cancellation of an election
generally regarded as fair which led to civil unrest and a
bloody crackdown by the security forces.
"Politicians in Nigeria are very good at arguing with each
other," said Antony Goldman, a Nigeria expert and head of
London-based PM Consulting.
"But the temptation to try to extract political advantage
from a national emergency reveals the deeper issue that ten
years after the end of military rule, the whole political class
struggles to make itself relevant to the people."
The propaganda war will rumble on and it is unclear what
impact, if any, it will have on the candidates' fortunes. But it
bodes ill for any hopes that the elections will be based on real
issues rather than scaremongering and personality clashes.
"The bomb blast is a shame because it could have been
prevented, but you know in Nigeria we don't pay attention to the
things that really matter," said Kehinde Osho, 24, a graphic
artist in the commercial hub Lagos.
"Elections are next year and the voters are not even
registered yet. We are fighting a lost battle -- we won't have a
credible election with this kind of preparation."
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(Additional reporting by Yinka Ibukun in Lagos; Editing by