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Nigeria's accidental president

Goodluck Jonathan has rocky start to re-election campaign.

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan dances with his wife Patience, left, and Vice President Namadi Sambo, center, at the Lafia Township Stadium in Lafia, Feb. 7, 2011. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

LAFIA, Nigeria — Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has one of the most improbable careers in Nigeria’s democratic history, if not the history of African democracy.

He is perhaps the only sitting leader of a democratic state seeking to be returned as president, who has never won an election in his own right.

At a dusty football ground in a rural backwater of Africa’s most populous nation, Jonathan last week began his campaign to win the presidency and the first national election in which his name has appeared on the ballot.

As they waited for him to arrive at the township stadium in Lafia, supporters heard Jonathan’s campaign song promising “a breath of fresh air.”

 Jonathan, 53, comes from a remarkably different background than most Nigerian politicians. In 1999 the environmentalist, lecturer in zoology and specialist in tropical fish was picked out of political obscurity to be the deputy governor of Bayelsa state, in Nigeria’s oil-rich southern Niger Delta region.

When his boss was impeached over a number of corruption charges in 2005, he became governor by default.

At the country’s 2007 election, the ruling People’s Democratic Party picked him to be the running mate for Umaru Yar’Adua, a former northern governor. Observers say Jonathan's lack of ambition made him someone who quarrelsome politicians from competing factions could all agree on for vice president.

Then Yar’Adua, sick with a chronic illness that caused his kidneys to fail, died in office last year, and Jonathan became president.

And now Jonathan has won the PDP party's nomination to run for re-election. Before selecting him as the party's presidential candidate, the PDP promoted Jonathan as a unifying figure, printing a pamphlet that showed him in traditional garb from around the country. But there have been objections to his selection from northern politicians and their supporters. The party’s rules say the next president must be from the north, the same region as the late president Yar’Adua.