November 17, 2010 / 12:37 PM / 7 years ago

Nigeria's Saraki eyes role as main presidential rival

<p>Kwara state governor and presidential candidate Bukola Saraki stands with his wife Toyin as he waves to his supporters in Nigeria's central city of Ilorin November 16, 2010. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye</p>

ILORIN, Nigeria (Reuters) - Northern opponents to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who is from the south, will agree soon on a consensus candidate to challenge him in ruling party primaries, a main rival said on Wednesday.

Kwara state Governor Bukola Saraki, one of Jonathan’s four northern challengers for the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) nomination ahead of elections next April, said he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached within weeks.

As the incumbent, Jonathan is considered the front-runner in the primaries but his candidacy is controversial because of an agreement in the PDP that power should rotate every two terms between the mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south.

The ability of Jonathan’s rivals to unseat him are dependent on such a deal being struck. Such is the dominance of the ruling party in Africa’s most populous nation that the winner of the primaries is almost certain to be the next president.

“There are discussions going on. I think that will be concluded in maximum of a week or two,” Saraki, who is chairman of the influential Governors’ Forum, told Reuters in an interview in Kwara’s capital Ilorin.

“I don’t think there will be that much difficulty in reaching a consensus because some of the views and policies are shared by all, so I don’t see a problem there,” said Saraki, who is pushing to be the northern consensus candidate.

Jonathan is a southerner who inherited the presidency this year after the death of northern President Umaru Yar‘Adua, who died part way through his first term.

Jonathan’s supporters say he was elected on a joint ticket with Yar‘Adua and can complete what would have been the second term. His opponents say only a northerner can succeed him.

Former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida, former vice president Atiku Abubakar and ex-national security adviser Aliyu Gusau -- all northerners -- have put themselves forward alongside Saraki to challenge Jonathan.

Should all four push their campaigns to the end, the anti-Jonathan vote would split, making it harder to unseat him.

ECONOMIC DIVERSIFICATION

Saraki was a close confidant of late President Yar‘Adua. He is a trained medical doctor and was director of Societe Generale Bank Nigeria (SGBN) for 10 years up to 2000, when he took up a post as special assistant to the president on budgetary matters.

He is the son of Kwara state’s political “godfather” Olusola Saraki, an influential senior figure in the PDP. He is Muslim, but is from the southern Yoruba ethnic group, meaning some do not view him as a “core northerner”.

Saraki’s critics highlight business problems with SGBN -- owned and controlled by the Saraki family -- which had its licence revoked by the central bank in 2005 before it was restored three years later.

They also point to his close relationship with James Ibori, former governor of southern Delta state who is wanted on corruption charges and was another key Yar‘Adua backer.

But his supporters praise his achievements in developing agriculture in Kwara, creating jobs in a sector long abandoned by other parts of sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy, which instead imports about $3 billion of food each year.

Saraki said developing agriculture and the manufacturing sectors -- potentially creating millions of jobs -- and improving infrastructure and electricity supply as well as education and health would be his top priorities.

“Before I became governor, Kwara was like number 24 in rice production, now we are number two over the period and we have companies coming to invest in rice processing. We can do that in most parts of Nigeria,” Saraki said.

Under his stewardship, Kwara has established a commercial agriculture programme which has seen white farmers settle after having their land seized in Zimbabwe. The state produces up to 6,000 litres of milk a day, a commodity which the rest of the nation spends over $1 billion a year importing.

He said improved electricity distribution in Kwara meant manufacturers had reliable power at least 18 hours a day, saving $1.7 billion in diesel costs to fuel their own generators.

Jonathan has made ending Nigeria’s chronic electricity shortages one of the cornerstones of his campaign, unveiling a multi-billion dollar power sector privatisation plan and seeking to woo foreign investors with promises of improved regulation.

Should Saraki emerge as the consensus northern candidate to challenge Jonathan, Nigerians might hope that substantive policy issues will become part of the debate, rather than the personal mud-slinging that has been the hallmark of previous elections.

“If we have a (PDP) convention and it is transparent and I defeat Jonathan ... he will accept. If Jonathan defeats me, as a democrat, I will accept,” he said.

“Nigeria is bigger than each one of us.”

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