Rumors that former president Goodluck Jonathan (2010-2015) may soon be defecting from his People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the All Progressives Congress (APC) to become the ruling party’s flagbearer for the 2023 presidential election may not be unsubstantiated. However, an important constitutional obstacle would need to be removed first, which may well happen as a raft of constitutional changes are currently before the National Assembly.
Following his electoral defeat in 2015, Jonathan has been on good terms with President Muhammadu Buhari and even represented the new government on several diplomatic missions in West Africa. While some of his wife’s assets have been confiscated, Jonathan himself has interestingly been spared prosecution for the rampant corruption that characterized his tenure. The potential allure of offering Jonathan the presidential ticket is due to the unwritten rules of power rotation, combined with the vested interests of the APC’s northern elite. After Buhari’s two consecutive terms, the conventional wisdom of Nigerian politics suggests that, by 2023, the presidency should be rotated (“zoned”) to a representative from the south of the country. The APC’s northern establishment perceives Jonathan, who hails from the south-eastern Bayelsa state, as a weak and easy-to-control candidate. The latter would set him apart from the APC’s own Tinubu, who is widely regarded as eyeing the candidacy for himself. Jonathan himself does not seem hostile to the idea of swapping parties, with his spokesperson merely commenting on the latest rumors by suggesting that “if he defects, it would be announced through the proper channels.”
While Jonathan may thus be ready to negotiate the terms of his departure, it seems the only major problem, for now, remains the constitution. It may be recalled that Jonathan’s candidacy for the 2015 presidential election was highly controversial. Having served as President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua (2007-2010)’s vice president, Jonathan became president following Yar’Adua’s death in office and served the remainder of his term, before being re-elected in 2011. In the run-up to the 2015 election, there was much debate as to whether Jonathan serving the remainder of Ya’Adua’s term counted towards the constitution’s two-term limit. In 2017, the Buhari government closed this loophole by passing a constitutional amendment clarifying that “a person who was sworn in as President to complete the term for which another person was elected as President shall not be elected to such office for more than a single term.”
As such, the administration would first need to repeal this amendment in order to allow Jonathan to run for another term, requiring two-third majorities in the National Assembly as well as in 24 state assemblies. However, there are currently more than a dozen constitutional changes of varying importance before parliament, which would provide an opportunity to sneak in an amendment of the’lex Jonathan’ as part of a broader package.