Goodluck Jonathan has had a speedy and surprising ascent to the office of President of Nigeria. Even in 2007 he was an unexpected choice as running-mate for Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.
The son of a canoe-builder, the 53 year-old holds a doctorate in Zoology and only entered politics in 1998. In 2005 Jonathan became Governor of Bayelsa state in Nigeria’s Niger Delta region after his boss was impeached, having been charged in Britain with money laundering. Less than two years later, Jonathan was Vice-President.
Yar’Adua, who had long suffered ill-health, was flown to Saudi Arabia for treatment last November. This triggered a power vacuum, and then a power struggle. Even as the President’s health worsened, the patronage networks that benefited from his office would not allow him to step aside.
The wrangling over power-holding – that is access to resources and lucrative deals – meant that Nigeria was leaderless for more than two months. Investors and international partners became nervous; Nigeria is the world’s nineteenth largest recipient of foreign direct investment, according to UNCTAD, and supplies the United States with eleven percent of its oil. The regional influence of this West African giant, with the continent’s largest population and probably its biggest oil reserves, is considerable.
Speedy and bold
Tensions, rumour and legal challenges proliferated until February 9 when the Senate declared Jonathan Acting President. But things became even more confused when Yar’Adua was suddenly flown back to the country under cover of darkness later that month.
Yet Jonathan persevered and, as Acting President he surprised observers with the speed of his actions and bold headline-catching demotions and sackings. He almost immediately removed the allegedly dubious Minister of Justice and Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, and less than a month later sacked the national security adviser Abdullahi Sarki Mukhtar, one of the Yar’Adua presidency’s inner circle.
The energy and decisiveness with which Jonathan has come to his new job has certainly been remarkable, particularly as he has risen so quickly from relative obscurity. His actions signal that he has not simply thrown caution to the wind, rather he is thinking tactically and in all likelihood, intends to continue beyond next year’s presidential elections.
He has already visited the US – the most vocal critic of Nigeria’s power vacuum during Yar’Adua’s illness – and met President Barack Obama ahead of April’s nuclear security summit in Washington. This came a week after the long-awaited signing of the US- Nigeria Binational Commission agreement.
Jonathan is expected to visit Britain in July.
The question is how far the President, sworn in on May 6, will be able to take the reforms begun by his predecessor before things start to heat-up ahead of presidential elections.
For all his exploits and apparent audacity in the face of opposition from Yar’Adua stalwarts, the challenges his predecessors faced remain. Among them: Nigeria’s inadequate power supply, the insecurity and underdevelopment of the Niger Delta region, corruption and electoral reform, localised violent conflict such as recently seen in Jos, and widespread extreme poverty.
One of Yar’Adua’s greatest achievements was an amnesty for militants in the Niger Delta where many disputes centre on the ownership and impact of oil, but this remains tenuous as it is so dependent on the personal involvement of the President and at the crucial early stages of the post-amnesty process, there was no President.
Jonathan will need to move on this with all haste if there is to be any lasting benefit from this period of relative calm. However, he may be disadvantaged by the fact that he is an Ijaw from the Delta region as this exposes him to potential accusations of nepotism.
The sacking of the chair of Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission signals a commitment to electoral reform, but with so little time left ahead of next year’s elections it is difficult to see how a new chair will be able to have any measurable short-term impact.
The President will also face the political challenges that every leader must. Behind every Nigerian President there are godfathers, to whom at some point the leaders must pay their dues. Both Yar’Adua and his Vice-President were seen as former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s choices. Early on in Yar’Adua’s presidency it was suspected that Obasanjo would be his puppet-master, but Yar’Adua quickly tried to distance himself and perhaps Jonathan will do the same.
If Jonathan is seeking the 2011 candidacy for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP), he will somehow have to overcome the party’s tacit agreement that Nigeria’s north and south ‘take turns’ at holding the presidency. As a southerner President, Obasanjo ruled for two terms, so now it is still the turn of the north.
Jonathan’s choice of vice-president was crucial. He recently nominated the northern state governor, Namadi Sambo. He is relatively new to politics and was close to Yar’Adua; another tactical choice by Jonathan who at this stage seems more politically ambitious than his vice-president.
Jonathan has drawn advisers from friends in his home state, but he has also cast a wide net in an effort to shore-up his position, seeking to build relationships and cement alliances in the north and consulting widely on key issues and appointments. Yet, however supportive members of the PDP and their allies may now be, this is unlikely to last as the party readies itself for primaries – famously vicious and frequently violent affairs in Nigeria.
It may be that Jonathan simply has all the good fortune that President Yar’Adua lacked. But it increasingly appears that he is a nimble political operator, able to navigate the competing alliances, demands and enmities that make Nigeria’s politics so treacherous.