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Goodluck Jonathan gets (slight) nod for Nigeria presidential run

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Benedicte Desrus/Sipa/Newscom

(Read caption) Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, President of Nigeria at the 15th African Union (AU) Summit in Kampala, Uganda.

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Powerbrokers in Nigeria's north may have flashed a faint green light for Goodluck Jonathon to run in January's presidential election, despite an unwritten agreement in their political party to rotate the presidency back to a northern-born candidate.

Governors in 19 northern states on Wednesday issued their most substantial collective statement to date concerning the future of Nigeria's acting president and probable top candidate.

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"The [governor's] forum acknowledges the right of President Goodluck Jonathan and indeed any other Nigerian to legitimately and constitutionally contest for the office of the president," they said in what was seen as a tepid endorsement.

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Mr. Jonathan's People's Democratic Party has dominated Nigeria's Fourth Republic since 1999, in part by following an unwritten rule that the presidency should rotate every two terms between southern and northern candidates.

Next year was supposed to be the North's second term. That presumption fell to shambles when President Umaru Yar'Adua, a northern-born Muslim, died in May, bequeathing the nine months left in his term to Jonathon, a southerner who turned out to be more ambitious than one might expect from an accidental president.

"He's fairly new to politics and has been presenting himself as quite a reformist," says Elizabeth Donnelly, Africa Program Manager at the London-based think tank Chatham House. "He came onto the scene with confidence and a sense of purpose that you wouldn't expect."

The opposition has yet to put forward a striking candidate for the vote, making it a convoluted question as to whether Nigeria's would-be transformational president can win over, buy out, or do without Nigeria's northern governors in order to secure a second term.

But Ms. Donnelly says Jonathan's political career is a sign that "politically, things are really shifting" in the country where the most telling divides aren't necessarily between north and south."

"There's a new, reform-minded younger generation coming up, causing tension between them and the old guard, which is mostly based around the north," she says.

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But one might be naive, she cautions, to safely count Jonathon in that vanguard generation lobbying for change.

"It's difficult to say," she says. "Everybody owes somebody."