* Elections deemed most credible in decades despite violence
* Choice of cabinet will reveal Jonathan’s strength
* Opposition has stronger voice in parliament, states
By Nick Tattersall
ABUJA, April 28 (Reuters) - Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan faces the toughest challenge of his career in uniting the country after elections which reshaped the political landscape and threw religious and ethnic fault lines into sharp relief.
This month’s polls, while far from perfect, have been heralded as a step change in Africa’s most populous nation, which had experienced virtually nothing but military rule and rigged votes for the past half century.
Ballot box snatching and voter intimidation marred the process in some parts of the country, but compared to the blatant fraud and thuggery of the past, observers and many Nigerians said the results reflected the will of the people.
Jonathan emerges from the polls with a credible mandate, having won 59 percent of the vote, but with a ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) chastened by a weaker parliamentary majority and the loss of several powerful state governorships.
Reaching out to his opponents — particularly in the mostly Muslim north, where hundreds were killed in rioting after his victory — will be key if Jonathan, a southern Christian, is to galvanise support for reforms and govern strongly.
“At the top of his list, bearing in mind the violence after the presidential elections, is the responsibility of pulling the country back together,” said Dapo Oyewole, director of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy think tank.
“He will need to do that to be able to find support not just to drive policy but to be able to lead the country. People will be looking to him to make certain gestures and overtures to some of the disaffected parties and groups,” he said.
Ex-military ruler Muhammadu Buhari, Jonathan’s defeated main rival, has said electoral commission computers were rigged to sway the count against him in parts of the north and that the PDP vote was inflated in some of its strongholds.
His Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) party has said it has evidence and will go to court, potentially overshadowing the start of Jonathan’s new term.
The naming of a new cabinet, a process which will not formally begin until after Jonathan is sworn in on May 29, will be the first sign of how conciliatory he plans to be.
“It will be an all-inclusive government,” Oronto Douglas, a senior adviser to Jonathan, told Reuters.
“It is good for our democracy to have an effective and constructive opposition ... The sort of triumphalism we had in the past did not help our nation. Those days are over,” he said.
Jonathan’s path to the presidency has not been an easy one and there is a list of regional and political factions who feel he owes them for his victory. Such debts have in the past crimped Nigerian leaders’ ability to pursue their reform plans.
He had to convince powerful northern politicians in his own party to back him at the primaries and eschew a tacit agreement that power rotates between north and south every two terms, a deal which would have ruled out his candidacy.
“One of the concessions is that he will serve one term which we will hold him to,” a senior member of the Arewa Consultative Council, a northern leaders’ forum, told Reuters.
The opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) made strong gains in the southwest, winning two state governorships from the ruling party and gaining parliamentary seats.
Jonathan had already reached out to the party’s leadership in the days before the presidential vote when it was considering forming a pact with the country’s other main opposition group.
“He’s a shrewd politician. Why wait until after the elections to hold talks,” said one opposition adviser.
Jonathan also carries the high expectations of his Niger Delta home region on his shoulders, the restive heartland of Africa’s biggest oil and gas industry where militant attacks have in the past knocked out a sizeable chunk of oil output.
He is the first head of state from the region.
“What the PDP had to do to win this election is phenomenal and win it he did, but the question is how he can shed himself of all those people sitting there with their hands out waiting for their expectations to be fulfilled,” said John Adeleke, a business consultant based in the commercial hub Lagos.
Jonathan came to power by accident, becoming governor of Bayelsa state after his boss was impeached and inheriting the presidency after his predecessor died last year. His critics say he is politically naive and that there could be no more fitting summary of his route to the top than his own name, Goodluck.
But those close to him say he is underestimated as a strategist. Nigerians, used to overbearing ex-military rulers, associate brashness with leadership and wrongly perceive his respectful manner as a sign of weakness, they say.
“We have either been governed by dictators or by election riggers who do not have to report back to the citizens,” said his adviser Douglas. “This is a new dawn for Nigeria”.
The PDP has dominated politics in Nigeria since the end of military rule in 1999. Its candidate has won every presidential race and it has controlled more than three quarters of parliamentary seats and two thirds of the 36 states.
“Overall the PDP has lost some ground and they won’t be able to take the electorate for granted like before, otherwise in the next election in 2015 they could be thrown out,” said Akin Ajayi, an independent consultant on public policy in Lagos.
Its losses in these elections could mean that for the first time the PDP is not the most obvious route to the presidency come elections in 2015. Building on its gains in parliament and in the states, the ACN could field a credible contender.
“If they are going to do that definitely it will involve not making the next four years a bed of roses for President Jonathan,” said Oyewole of the think tank in Abuja.
In the long term such rivalry can only be healthy.
“In no time in recent history have Nigerians been so energised, electrified and engaged in the electoral process. Those who had become very cynical, very disconnected, have become reconnected and re-engaged,” Oyewole said.
"The bar has been set high and from now on Nigerians will only expect things to go higher." (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Additional reporting by James Jukwey and Matthew Tostevin; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Giles Elgood)