ABUJA, Nigeria â€“ President Goodluck Jonathan, who became leader of oil-rich Nigeria only after the death of its elected president, handily won the endorsement of the country’s ruling party Friday morning, making him the overwhelming favorite to win April’s presidential election.
Jonathan cast himself as the leader able to change Africa’s most populous nation, which has blessed by rich oil reserves but cursed by years of military dictatorships. Voters at the convention in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, responded by giving him two-thirds of the vote, beating main challenger former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, in an election that highlighted the religious and ethnic fault lines in Africa’s most populous nation.
As the candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Jonathan can expect the party to use its political connections, money and muscle to propel him to victory. Since the handover in 1999 from military rule to a civilian government, politics in the West African nation have been dominated by the party.
“We have a chance to transform ourselves to be a great nation in the years ahead,” Jonathan told delegates gathered for the convention in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja.
One promise won a cheer from the crowd: “Goodluck Ebele Jonathan and (Vice President) Nnmadi Sambo will never, never, never let you down.”
The president, dressed in the traditional black caftan and bowler hat of his Niger Delta home, said his administration plans to privatize the nation’s state-run power company.
Abubakar hammered the president in a speech over rising debit and growing insecurity in a country divided between a predominantly Christian south and a Muslim north.
Under an informal power-sharing agreement, the leadership post had been traded between a northerner and southerner.
Jonathan, a Christian from the south, became president last May after the death of Nigeria’s elected leader, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the north who had only served one term. For that reason, some party members wanted another northerner to be the candidate.
So too does Abubakar. He said not having a northerner as candidate would cause “lawless and anarchy.”
Delegates began voting after the two men’s speeches, dropping ballots into glass ballot boxes as observers from Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission looked on.
The small-scale primary election offered warnings of what might come in the April general election. Some complained that the ballots, bearing serial numbers, allowed their votes to be tracked. Jigawa state Gov. Sule Lamido, a prominent party member, got into a brief scuffle with one election official.
International observers called the 2007 election that brought the late Yar’Adua and Jonathan to power rigged, even though it represented the first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power in the nation’s history.
Western nations hope Nigeria’s coming election remains calm. The OPEC-member nation is a top supplier of easily refined crude oil to the U.S. Violence in the country has caused global oil prices to spike in the past.
The primary convention also showed how uneasy the government remains after recent bombings targeting Abuja. Outside of Eagle Square, the site of the convention, federal ministries sat empty all day as security forces locked down roads up to one mile (two kilometers) from the outdoor parade ground. Everyone entering the square faced at least four security screenings, as police sharpshooters stood in towers and flew overhead in a helicopter.