LAGOS Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had doubts this year about whether he would stand in elections next April, saying his focus was organizing credible polls, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable.
The cable, obtained by WikiLeaks and published by Britain's Guardian newspaper, says Jonathan told then-U.S. Ambassador Robin Sanders in February that he would only consider running if and when those around him sought to persuade him to do so.
"Jonathan said he does not anticipate standing for elections in 2011 and that he is not working toward a presidential candidacy. He wants to put into place an electoral structure that will be ready for national elections," the cable said, referring to a February 26 meeting with Jonathan.
"He did, however, note that 'if they want me to run, that will be something to consider at that time'," it said.
Jonathan was acting president of Africa's most populous nation at the time of the meeting with Sanders.
President Umaru Yar'Adua was in a "semi-comatose" state, according to the cable, and had just been flown back from treatment in Saudi Arabia. A cabal led by his wife Turai was trying to maintain a grip on power, the documents said.
Jonathan's office said in a statement that the accounts of his conversations with U.S. diplomats were "essentially third party narratives" and "largely inaccurate."
"At the time he made those statements, he was acting president. He cannot say he is going to run when the president is still alive," Ken Saro-Wiwa, Jonathan's special assistant on international affairs, told Reuters.
Jonathan was sworn in on May 6 after Yar'Adua died.
He has since announced his candidacy for 2011, but faces a tough battle securing the ruling party nomination because of a pact in the party that power rotates every two terms between the mostly-Muslim north and largely Christian south.
Yar'Adua, a northerner, died part way through his first term and Jonathan's opponents say a northerner must therefore serve what would have been his second term. Jonathan is from the Niger Delta, the OPEC member's southern oil heartland.
History has always favored the incumbent, but Jonathan faces a challenge for the ruling party ticket from former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, selected by a group of influential northern politicians as a rival consensus candidate.
The cable said Jonathan noted that northern politicians "would always be uncomfortable with him as president" and that he understood he had originally been chosen as Yar'Adua's vice president because he represented the restive Niger Delta.
"I was not chosen to be Vice President because I had good political experience ... I did not. There were a lot more qualified people around to be Vice President, but that does not mean I am not my own man," he was quoted as saying.
The cable said the U.S. government advised Jonathan to assert himself as a national figure rather than a regional one, and to assert his independence from former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a powerful background figure in the ruling party.
But the United States welcomed Jonathan's apparently sincere desire to overhaul the electoral system and ensure credible polls in 2011. Previous elections in the West African country have been marred by voter intimidation and ballot-stuffing.
"It is always hard to judge how someone will behave (or surprise you) when leadership is unexpectedly thrown in their lap," the February cable said.
"The verdict is out on Jonathan, and his previously underwhelming personality and performance needs to keep us in the cautious lane, but so far, so good."
(Additional reporting by Joe Brock and Felix Onuah in Abuja)