Bribery and intimidation likely helped Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan achieve his overwhelming defeat of former vice president Atiku Abubakar for the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) presidential nomination. As a sitting president, Jonathan had access to unlimited amounts of money for bribes as well as control of the security services.

With the PDP delegates assembled in one place -- Eagle Square in central Abuja -- his operatives mixed carrots, such as promises of immunity from prosecution, with sticks, including the threat of prosecution to those who remained recalcitrant or who reneged after accepting a bribe.

As the Giant of Africa now turns its attention to country-wide presidential elections, the contest is shaping up to be dangerous and destabilizing, pitting a Christian candidate against a Muslim candidate -- a competition Nigerians have always tried to avoid. Perhaps for the first time, Nigerian presidential elections will matter because the leading candidates are identified with rival regions and religions, identities more important to Nigerians than their national one. If the elections are not credible, there is likely to be much greater popular protest than there has been in the past. Disgruntled elites are already mobilizing popular anger around religious, regional and ethnic identities as they battle to keep control of the state and its oil wealth. Escalating violence in the Middle Belt -- the central part of Nigeria where religious, ethnic and economic boundaries coincide -- and the North, as well as bombings in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, only hint at what is to come.

Since 1999, the PDP presidential nomination has been tantamount to winning the presidency. Nigerian powerbrokers from all parts of the country remained sufficiently united to ensure that a PDP consensus candidate could be rigged into office, particularly because of an informal arrangement among Nigeria's elite, 'zoning,' that provided for the presidency to alternate between the predominately Christian South and the predominately Muslim North. But Jonathan's candidacy has splintered that unity. Originally a Southern Christian vice president, he became an "accidental" president when President Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the North, died. Under zoning, it is still the North's turn and many Northern powerbrokers anticipated that Jonathan would finish out Yar'Adua's term and then step aside, waiting to run on his own until 2015 when it is again the South's turn. Jonathan's decision to run violated this assumption.

Now that Jonathan has the PDP nomination, it remains to be seen how the Northern powerbrokers who have not been co-opted will organize themselves. Already some northerners have been withdrawing from the PDP, and in light of the primary outcome that number will certainly grow. Former military chief of state Muhammadu Buhari has already announced his presidential candidacy from the platform of a small party associated with reform. Never a member of the PDP, he is an austere personality known for his hostility to corruption, and is therefore hostile to conventional powerbroker interests. But he is perhaps the most popular political figure on the street. Atiku Abubakar may run as the presidential candidate of a different party, and former military chief of state Ibrahim Babangida may try to revive his candidacy also using as his platform one of the minor parties.

Nevertheless, the PDP candidate since 1999 has always been rigged into the presidency. In the aftermath of Jonathan's PDP victory, the parts of the now splintered political elite may be willing to do almost anything to prevent his presidential victory in the April 2011 elections. Popular resentment will be strong, particularly if the April 2011 elections are not credible because of the appeal to ethnic and religious identities. The danger is popular protest and violence can easily spiral out of control. Under these circumstances, there is now an even stronger premium on the credibility of the April 2011 elections.

John Campbell is the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and most recently author of "Nigeria: Dancing on the Brink." He blogs at "Africa in Transition." Want to learn more about Nigeria? Watch these short background videos.

You may also like

Read Next