President Goodluck Jonathan replaced his entire military leadership on thursday after serious setbacks in the struggle against an Islamist insurgency, and he lost a close political ally who quit as crisis grips the ruling party.
The presidency announced the removal of the chiefs of defense, army, navy and air force and named their successors without explanation.
However, a source said President Jonathan wanted to score some visible successes against the Boko Haram sect, which is trying to create an Islamic state in northern Nigeria, before what are expected to be closely contested elections next year.
As President Jonathan asserted his military authority, top political ally Bamanga Tukur resigned as chairman of his People’s Democratic Party (PDP), which is in crisis largely over the president’s assumed intention to run for another term in 2015.
Armed forces chiefs appear to have lost their jobs over attempts to subdue the militants which are going badly.
On December 2 Boko Haram gunmen stormed the air force base and military barracks around the airport of the northeastern city of Maiduguri. The group was also suspected of being behind a car bomb in the city this week which killed 29 people and wounded dozens more.
“I think this is performance-related,” a security expert in Nigeria said.
“The security teams haven’t had a glowing record recently. The air force base attack was shocking.”
Boko Haram has waged a four-year insurgency which has killed thousands in the religiously mixed country of 170 million, and has become the biggest security threat in Africa’s top oil exporter and second largest economy.
Jonathan is also under heavy pressure politically. In December, former mentor and two-time Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo wrote a scathing letter telling him not to run again and copying it to two other ex-military leaders, Ibrahim Babangida and Abdulsalami Abubakar.
President Jonathan has not said he will run, but his supporters note that he has a constitutional right to. That has upset northerners in the PDP, who think he may violate an unwritten rule that power should rotate each two terms between the largely Christian south and mostly Muslim north.
The PDP has suffered defections to an increasingly powerful opposition. Announcing Tukur’s resignation to a party committee on Thursday, Jonathan suggested he had agreed to step aside to calm some party divisions. Tukur’s removal had been a main demand of Jonathan’s opponents within the PDP and may help to placate some.
Jonathan ordered a state of emergency and an intensified military surge last May in the northeast, where most Boko Haram attacks take place.
He was forced to extend emergency rule in November as troops struggled to contain the insurgents.
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