February 6, 2015 / 6:04 PM / 3 years ago

Former militants join Nigeria's Jonathan for election rally

YENAGOA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Nigerian ruling party politicians and former militants who in past decades disrupted Africa’s biggest oil industry met in President Goodluck Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa on Friday to rally support for his re-election bid a week before the vote.Thousands of supporters wearing the red and green of the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) cheered as Jonathan took the stage after hours of dancing to singers and a live band.“I know you love me and I love you,” Jonathan told them in the stadium of the Bayelsa state capital Yenagoa, his short speech punctuated by bass guitar and crashing symbols.“I will make sure that everybody, in one way or another, tastes the fruits of democracy,” he said, wearing his trademark fedora hat and carrying a gold-handled cane.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan looks on during a visit to the Emir of Gombe, Abubakar Shehu-Abubakar, as part of his presidential election campaign in Gombe, February 2, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Jonathan is campaigning heavily in a tight race amid criticism he has failed to quell a bloody Islamist insurgency or tackle corruption, complaints that have dented his popularity in the largely Muslim north, but also in the religiously-mixed southwest.In return, he has drawn attention to his achievements, including creating universities and privatizing the electric power sector.

The bastion of his support remains the Niger Delta, a region that has long felt it deserves more of the oil wealth it produces. His rallies in the north have been disrupted by thugs and his convoy has been stoned, but in Bayelsa he was more or less guaranteed an enthusiastic showing.Jonathan, a former zoology lecturer and the son of a canoe carver from the creeks of the Delta, faces former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari in an election on Feb. 14 that is likely to be the closest since the end of military rule in 1999.As his motorcade sped through Yenagoa, crowds clapped and women in bright headdresses danced.

MILITANT LEADER

They cheered nearly as loudly for former Niger Delta militant leader Mujahid Dokubo-Asari, who rode past earlier on the top of a dark Mercedes Benz 4x4, stretching his fist out of his white robe in a power salute.Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force managed to push oil prices to record highs in 2004 with its constant attacks and threats against oil production in the delta’s swampy creeks.Since then, peace deals with the region’s warlords, including a lucrative amnesty and in some cases government contracts, have pacified the delta. The insurgency by Boko Haram Islamist militants in the north has become the number one threat to Nigeria’s security.As another former militant leader, Kinglsey Kuku, who is now a presidential adviser, headed towards the stadium, a police officer stood to attention and saluted him.Jonathan’s presidency since 2009 -- the first time anyone from the delta has had the top job -- helped cool tensions in the region, which complains that it produces the oil that has made many Nigerians rich while seeing little benefit.Both Asari and Kuku have been quoted in the local press asthreatening a return to the days of militancy if Jonathan does not get a second term. He is also hugely popular in the delta.A debate is raging between the PDP, which says the election should be delayed because the electoral commission is not ready, and the APC, which wants it to go ahead on the scheduled date. Most diplomats expect a delay.Buhari, who ruled Nigeria as military dictator between 1983-85, is campaigning heavily on a perception that Jonathan has failed to deal with the insurgency in the north.But many in the Niger Delta, hundreds of miles away from theinsurgency plaguing the northeast, feel it is still their turn.“The north held power for 25 years and we had nothing,” said T.T. Abasa, a builder. “Now it is the turn of the south-south (delta).”

Editing by Giles Elgood

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