LAGOS Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday declared his intention to run in elections next January, using an announcement on the networking site Facebook to steal the thunder from a rival's campaign launch.
A statement on Jonathan's Facebook page confirmed his decision to stand as thousands of people convened in the capital Abuja to hear former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida announce his candidacy for the top job.
Jonathan's election bid is controversial because of an agreement in the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) that power should rotate between the mostly Muslim north and the predominantly Christian south every two terms.
Jonathan, who is from the Niger Delta in the south, inherited the presidency when late northern president Umaru Yar'Adua died this year during his first term. Some powerbrokers within the PDP say the next leader must be a northerner.
"In presenting myself for service, I make no pretence that I have a magic wand that will solve all of Nigeria's problems, or that I am the most intelligent Nigerian," the statement on Jonathan's Facebook page said.
"What I do promise is this -- If I am elected President in 2011, I will make a covenant with you the Nigerian people to always do right by you, to tell you the truth at all times, to carry you along and most importantly to listen to you."
Jonathan plans to make a formal declaration at a rally on Saturday on his intention to run for the leadership of Africa's most populous nation, the statement said.
A presidency spokesman confirmed the page was genuine, while Information Minister Dora Akunyili said Jonathan had also told the cabinet of his intention to run.
The unconventional method of announcing his ambition was in marked contrast to Babangida's traditional rally in Abuja's Eagle Square, the parade ground which has hosted national ceremonies since the capital moved from Lagos two decades ago.
"To the betterment of our country, the advancement of humanity and greater glory of the Almighty, I Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida ... hereby formally declare my candidacy," he said, to rapturous chanting of his initials "IBB."
Babangida, a northerner who seized power in the OPEC member in August 1985 and ruled for nearly eight years, pledged to ensure double-digit growth in sub-Saharan Africa's second biggest economy and said he would only seek one four-year term.
Jonathan and his office had been coy for months on whether or not he would stand, but a recent reshuffle of the military top brass and policy announcements akin to campaign promises -- from privatizing the power sector to setting up a sovereign wealth fund -- left few Nigerians in much doubt over his plans.
Jonathan said he had decided to run after consultations with the country's six geo-political zones, the ruling party, the opposition, civil society, labor unions and religious leaders.
But opponents criticized him for ending the zoning agreement, meant to prevent resentment in the north or south.
"The battle has now begun and there is no doubt the north will be united against him," said Sani Shehu, a veteran human rights activist and expert on northern Nigerian politics.
"Whatever is the outcome, there will be a price to be paid. The north will feel Jonathan is running a stolen presidency if he eventually wins the election. If he loses, the south-south will believe they were ganged up against," he told Reuters.
Buba Galadima, an aide to former military ruler and potential opposition candidate Muhammadu Buhari, agreed.
"The articles in the PDP constitution clearly stipulated zoning for political positions. For the president to have jettisoned that is an act of bad faith which means as a leader he cannot be trusted," he said.
A presidential adviser said Jonathan would unveil his policy platform on Saturday, but that the Facebook announcement was an effort to energize a new part of the electorate.
"Eagle Square is the old-school way of doing things, coming down from your hill and announcing your intention to run. People do not feel connected to the electoral process in this country," the adviser told Reuters.
The majority of Nigeria's 150 million people live on $2 a day or less and have limited access to clean water and electricity, let alone the Internet.
But Nigeria has overtaken South Africa as Africa's biggest mobile market and is estimated to have the continent's largest online audience with more than 1.6 million Facebook users.
"At the touch of a button he's grabbed attention. Babangida must have thought he would at least have today to himself," said Antony Goldman, head of London-based PM Consulting.
(Additional reporting by Oludare Mayowa and Yinka Ibukun in Lagos, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Editing by Giles Elgood)