In Nigeria's presidential primary, signs of a regional split

In the wee hours of the morning on Friday, Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party decided on their candidate for the spring presidential election -- the accidental incumbent Goodluck Jonathan, who took over when his former boss died in office last spring. The markets were pleased, and almost no one was particularly surprised. Jonathan is now a shoo-in favorite to win the presidency for another term. If only it were so simple.

Many a pundit has rehashed the point of contention going into yesterday's primary: The party's gentleman's agreement to rotate the office between north and south every eight years should have shoehorned a northerner into the candidacy this year -- but Jonathan is from the south. So not surprisingly, Jonathan was up against a popular northern politician for the nomination, a former vice president, Atiku Abubakar. That Jonathan won is no small testament to the political lobbying he has done in recent weeks (but also likely to the fact that the man in power controls the party machinery). The numbers look pretty convincing -- 2,736 delegates voted for Jonathan while just 807 voted for Abubakar.

Dig down at the state level, however, and you'll see the rift -- particularly in the country's middle belt, where north and south meet (and where intercommunal violence has erupted in recent months). A good example is Bauchi state, where Jonathan won by a margin of 2 votes -- 46 to 44. In northern Zamfara state, Jonathan won just one-tenth of Abubakar's share.

Abubakar will likely still run -- just under the umbrella of another party organization. The question is, will the north support him? And will they protest should he lose? Religion and location (which largely correspond, thanks to colonial rulers' partitions) have long been used to stoke violence in Nigeria.

Of late, the stakes have risen, however; violent groups in both regions, north and south, have taken to bomb attacks to make their point. On New Year's Eve, a bomb rocked army barracks in Abuja -- an attack that the government initially blamed on northern Islamist extremists. Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region (where Jonathan is from) also exploded a car bomb in Abuja last fall. 

No doubt, it's the beginning of a very interesting election season.



Ben Ali's 1979 playbook

It's hard to envy the position Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was in these last few weeks: There just aren't many good answers available to despots who are faced with popular uprisings. Still, he should have known better than to settle on Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi's 1978-1979 playbook for quelling incipient revolutions.

Indeed, Ben Ali seemed intent on compressing the shah's yearlong series vacillations into a tidy one-week time frame. First, a show of denial: The shah started 1978 by denouncing street protests as conspiracies directed from abroad, while Ben Ali started this week by declaring mass demonstrations to be "terrorist acts." Next a halfhearted show of force to restore law and order: In the autumn of 1978, the shah declared martial law and organized a military government; Ben Ali, for his part, imposed a nationwide curfew this week and presumably instructed security forces to use deadly force against continued protests. Then a hasty series of concessions that are inevitably interpreted as too little, too late: Late in the game, each leader tried to shuffle his cabinet into a more liberal arrangement. That's followed by a transparently cynical, and frankly depressing, declaration of sympathy for the protests: The shah went on television in November to announce, "I have heard the voice of your revolution"; Ben Ali went on television on Thursday to tell his restive populace, "I have understood you." Finally, there's the retreat into exile -- the shah fled to Egypt in January 1979, while Ben Ali is now reported to be in Malta, France, or Saudi Arabia. (The aftermath is unlikely to get any rosier for Ben Ali, judging from the shah's experience: He shuttled around the world -- from Morocco, to Mexico, to the Bahamas, to the United States to Switzerland -- in search of an offer of residence that was more than temporary, until he finally died in 1980.)

The shah's unsteady strategy was already discredited in the eyes of the current regime in Iran, which came into power after his departure -- hence, the Iranian leadership's unremitting hard-line crackdown when it was faced with mass protests in the wake of the country's 2009 presidential election. Tunisia's current revolution may well be seen in Tehran, and perhaps in other regional capitals, less as a reminder of the power of popular action than as confirmation of Ben Ali's personal weakness in refusing to pick a position and stick with it. If any other governments threaten to collapse in the wake of Tunisia's successful revolution, you can expect that the protests will be met with either an outstretched hand or a clenched fist, but certainly not both.