Residents in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta fear unrest if President Goodluck Jonathan, the first politician from their region to hold the country’s highest office, is prevented from seeking re-election.
Jonathan, who took the helm last month after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, has brought hopes of much needed infrastructure, security and investment to an impoverished region plagued by unemployment and criminality.
But a presidential bid by Jonathan in polls due by next April could be controversial because he is from the Christian south and an unwritten agreement in the ruling party dictates the next president should be from the Muslim north.
“God has put him there and no man should be allowed to say he cannot take another four years,” said John Teme, 44, a phone card salesman at a street market near Yenagoa, the capital of Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa.
“If they don’t allow it, not only in Bayelsa but all of the Delta, there will be a crisis.”
The walls of homes and businesses throughout the Niger Delta, and in parts of the capital Abuja and commercial hub Lagos, are plastered with posters urging a bid by Jonathan.
“If you love Nigeria and you want a better nation … appeal to the president to contest,” says one posted in Lagos by a group called “Northern Friends of the South-South”.
The president has distanced himself from groups promoting his candidacy, but he has not ruled out running in the elections, due by April next year.
Some northerners have said they would support him, but his candidacy could risk splitting the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which has won every election since the end of military rule just over a decade ago.
Once in a lifetime
Many residents in the Niger Delta, one of the world’s largest wetlands but heavily polluted after half a century of oil output, see Jonathan’s presidency as a once in a lifetime opportunity to have a leader who understands their troubles.
“As a minority people in the Niger Delta, we think Jonathan should run in the 2011 elections,” Goodnews Igbudu, community development chairman for Ikarama village, said while standing on the shoreline of a pond blackened by a recent oil spill.
If Jonathan is not allowed, “definitely there must be violence because who will protect our rights”, he said, while a fellow resident scooped up a handful of oil from the waterway. Ikarama, like many other Niger Delta communities, has seen little tangible benefit from five decades of oil extraction, with most of the population living on less than $2 a day.
Jonathan has made security and development in the Niger Delta one of his top priorities.
Unrest has prevented Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry from pumping much more than two thirds of its 3 million barrel per day capacity. It has also prevented foreign investment and delayed infrastructure projects in the region.
“Many of the previous (federal) governments … behaved as if these matters could be wished away. They were more interested in mining the oil and gas so they could get revenue,” said Albert Horsfall, head of post-amnesty efforts in Rivers state.
“But being a son of the soil, (Jonathan) cannot behave in the same way. He knows this is a problem he must tackle. If he doesn’t … he will have to come back here and live with it.”
Jonathan, a former Bayelsa state governor, has promised to revive the amnesty programme begun by Yar’Adua that aims to educate and employ thousands of former militants.
Pic: Nigerian President- Jonathan Goodluck