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Abductions seen as just one factor in coming Nigeria election

Protesters gather during a sit-in protest in support of the release of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls at the Unity Fountain in Abuja May 15
Protesters gather during a sit-in protest in support of the release of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls at the Unity Fountain in Abuja May 15

By Bate Felix and Matthew Mpoke Bigg

ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's last-minute decision to cancel his first visit to the village where Islamist rebels abducted more than 200 schoolgirls has sharpened criticism of his handling of the crisis.

Yet the government's performance since last month's kidnappings is unlikely to prove decisive for Nigeria's polarized electorate if Jonathan decides to stand for re-election next February, analysts and voters said on Friday.

Nigeria, a country of 170 million, is riven by political, regional and religious tensions as well as long-standing grievances over how its oil wealth should be shared. As a result, Boko Haram's five-year insurgency in the northeast is just one issue facing voters, even though thousands have died.

"If the elections were to be held today, it would have a negative impact (on Jonathan). But the elections are still nine months away," said commentator Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Financial Derivatives investment consulting firm in Lagos.

Jonathan had intended to fly to Borno state capital Maiduguri on Friday and head on to Chibok, the village rebels stormed on April 14 and dragged off more than 200 schoolgirls.

But security concerns thwarted his plan after the killing on Tuesday of at least four soldiers in a rebel ambush near Chibok.

"The president was planning to go but security advised otherwise on the visit," said a government source said. Instead he will fly directly to Paris for a regional summit that will feature discussion of Boko Haram.

International outrage over the kidnappings has exposed the government to criticism. A U.S. official said the government was slow to adapt to the rebel threat, while a British minister said Abuja had faced huge challenges with aspects of its response.

BIGGEST THREAT

Some Nigerian commentators argued that the government's handling of the crisis had improved after a slow start. Others took a less forgiving view of Jonathan's decisions.

"There is no excuse for the president not to visit Chibok, considering that he has all the security resources of the government at his disposal," Rotimi Olawale, a spokesman for the #BringBackOurGirls campaign in Abuja, told Reuters.

Voters in parts of mostly-Muslim northern Nigeria say they have been neglected by the federal government and sidelined from the petro dollars flowing for decades into the country, the largest oil producer in Africa.

They say a lackluster counter-insurgency has only reinforced their sense of disenfranchisement. Nigeria recently overtook South Africa as the biggest economy in Africa, a fact that could heighten demands for social equity.

"I am 100 percent sure that Goodluck Jonathan will not get a single vote from northern Nigeria. He has neglected the north and especially the northeast," said Mustapha Mohammed, a civil servant in Maiduguri, capital of Borno state.

Perhaps the biggest threat to Jonathan, if he seeks re-election, is the All Progressives Congress formed last year by four opposition parties. It has been boosted by governors and lawmakers who quit the ruling People's Democratic Party.

Last week, Jonathan defended his handling of problems in the northeast. Ending the insurgency will require various reforms, including better education and jobs for young people, he said.

"You must first solve the security problem even before the development programs can go on and we have a robust plan for that. We are working hard," he told journalists.

Whatever happens with Boko Haram, the president can count on support from his own mostly Christian southern Delta region. Several voters there told Reuters the rebellion was cooked up to tarnish the image of Jonathan, who is a Christian.

"It is so unfortunate that he came and inherited the problems that other previous administrations could have solved," said Richard Akinaka, a youth activist in Bayelsa state.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah, Camillus Eboh and Joe Penney in Abuja, Isaac Abrak in Maiduguri and Tife Owalabi in Yenagoa; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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