Nigeria's accidental president

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.

The opposition Campaign for Progressive Change, led by former military leader Muhammadu Buhari, has received a boost in some areas of the north because of Jonathan’s selection.

In an effort to win support in the north, Jonathan came to Lafia in northern Nasarawa state to launch his presidential campaign. But before the rally, youths threw stones at Jonathan’s convoy as it approached the stadium. The next day the CPC candidate for governor of Nasarawa was arrested by police, sparking violent clashes between PDP and CPC supporters. During the clashes police shot dead two children caught in the melee. 

There are rifts between People’s Democratic Party grandees in several regions of the country and this will increase tension and could lead to more such demonstrations, observers say.

“Jonathan is not as good at imposing his will on politics as his predecessor Olusegun Obasanjo,” said Bashir Sa’ad Abudullahi, editor of the BBC’s Hausa service. “If there was a squabble between people in the party before, president Obasanjo would sit them down and say ‘this is what I want, do it or leave the party.’ Jonathan wants to please everyone. That makes him not as strong.”

Nigeria is Africa’s top oil producer but Nigerians lack jobs, electricity and other services. Bad governance prevents money earned from oil from improving ordinary people’s lives.

Security has also suffered in recent months.

Hundreds have died in violence between communities in Plateau state, the Islamist militants of Boko Haram have emerged in the north and militants in the southern oil-producing Niger Delta have threatened more attacks. There are also vital reforms to the oil industry that Jonathan has promised to enact before May.

If he wins the election, fortune may continue to favor Goodluck Jonathan.

The international price of oil is high at more than $100 per barrel, and may stay that way for some time.

Nigeria’s power sector is also about to be privatized. There are several Nigerian financiers eager to invest, according to people close to the process but who are not authorized to speak to the press.

To seal the success of the privatization, international power-generating companies that would build and run the power stations for the Nigerian investors, must be attracted to work in Nigeria.

This is where Jonathan comes in to his own, key government figures say.

“Jonathan is very popular with the outside world, his connection with the international community is vital to Nigeria’s future success,” said present governor of Bayelsa state Timipre Sylva.

While Jonathan is busy assuring the outside world that he will bring reform and positive change, the message at home is more confused.

As the band in Lafia sang about how Jonathan would change Nigeria, the incumbent governor, a member of the same party as the president, is running for re-election under the slogan “continuity for progress.”

Two politicians from the same party, running under contradictory slogans.

The answer, according to one top party figure, is that although things must change, the same people must hold on to power.

“Change and continuity are really one and the same thing the same thing,” party grandee Ibrahim Mantu said. “What is important for Nigeria is that in the process of keeping the political continuity, we must change the prospects for the poor.”