Nigeria’s lower house speaker and the fourth most powerful person in the country defected to the main opposition coalition on Tuesday, a move that will give it a much needed boost against President Goodluck Jonathan in February 2015 elections.
Aminu Tambuwal, who had long been unhappy with the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) under Jonathan, announced his decision in an address to parliament that was broadcast on local television channels.
“I want to confirm to you that I have registered my membership of the All Progressives Congress (APC),” he said.
Tambuwal’s defection was widely expected, but it nonetheless bucks a trend over the past few months that has seen influential figures shift away from the APC to Jonathan’s PDP.
It is also a sign that the elections may be becoming more polarised around religion — Tambuwal is an aristocrat from the powerful Sokoto Caliphate, Nigeria’s highest Islamic authority.
Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was an accidental president, taking over in 2009 after President Umaru Yar’adua, a Muslim from the north, died from illness.
When Jonathan was elected to his own term in 2011, many in the north resented his decision to run, believing he had torn up an unwritten rule that power should rotate between mainly Muslim north and mainly Christian south every two terms.
The top two contenders for the APC presidential ticket next year — former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari and recently defected vice president Atiku Abubakar — are both Muslim northerners.
In 2011 more than 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced in three days of violence after Jonathan beat Buhari in the poll.
Jonathan has yet to officially declare he will run in February, but the PDP has adopted him as sole candidate and last week he told them he would enter the race, before setting off on a well-publicised Christian pilgrimage to Israel.
The APC’s failure to agree on a leader has diminished its elite support and made it look weaker as the polls approach.
Last December the PDP was hit by a wave of defections by lawmakers to the APC as it gained momentum, but since then a number of powerful figures have swung the other way back to the president’s camp.
They include popular two-term ex-governor of Kano state Ibrahim Shakarau, a Buhari rival, and former anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu, denying the APC a strong anti-graft platform.
The February elections, which include parliamentary and local polls as well as presidential, are likely to be the most closely fought since the end of military rule in 1999.
Jonathan’s government has been beset by criticism over its inability to end an insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists and a raft of oil corruption scandals, but the president still appears to be in a strong position. ] (Reporting by Tim Cocks; Editing by Gareth Jones)