A change of fortune for Nigeria’s president?

Published by The Independent (17th January, 2015)

Lawrence Ebele Jonathan was a canoe-maker, struggling to survive in the Delta region of southern Nigeria. Yet despite his humble background he claimed to have instinctively known that, when his son arrived in late November 1957, the child had destiny and fortune on his side. “I just said to myself: this boy is lucky. So I decided to call him Goodluck.”

Names can be seen as portentous in Nigeria. And whatever else you say about the man who rose almost without trace from such modest beginnings to become President of  the wealthiest nation in Africa, Goodluck Jonathan has certainly lived up to his name. His mother Eunice had a history of long labour, but he was born in hours – and he survived, unlike seven of her eight other children who died in infancy.

He became governor of his home state of Bayelsa after six undistinguished years as deputy, rising to the position when his boss was impeached for money-laundering in the UK. Then he was selected as a southern Christian to balance the ticket for a northern Muslim presidential candidate, who died in office. So having never won election to major public office in his own name, he was sworn in five years ago as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces of Africa’s most populous country.

In 2011, he won his first election for president, despite opposition claims of fraud and subsequent rioting that left 800 dead. Yet as Jonathan stands for re-election next month, some might question whether this unassuming man’s astonishing run of fortune is coming to a close. For while he talks of his “transformation agenda” for Nigeria, the government has been plagued by massive corruption scandals, the economy is suffering from falling oil prices and the nation faces surging violence from the vicious jihadist insurgency in the north.

This month has brought the worst Boko Haram atrocities yet, with reports that 2,000 people may have been massacred in attacks and of 10-year-olds being used as suicide bombers. Amnesty International claimed satellite images showed 3,700 buildings damaged or destroyed in Baga, while those who escaped the carnage talked of men, women and children slaughtered “like animals”. Last year, an average of 27 Nigerians died each day from violence linked to Boko Haram, while the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls attracted a flicker of global focus on the insurgency crippling parts of the country.

Jonathan made a rapid visit to the region on Thursday. Yet, three months ago, in his election campaign launch, he made only briefest mention of the “dark cloud on our nation” that has forced 1.5 million people from their homes and left almost two million stuck in Boko Haram’s self-declared caliphate – despite the fact that Jonathan was speaking the day after a devastating school bombing. He took two weeks to say anything at all in public about the missing Chibok girls, which made him look both callous and incompetent.

His bumbling reaction to the rise of Boko Haram underlines the inadequacies of Nigerian governance. These combined with the stumbling response from a demoralised army, corroded by corruption and suspicions the insurgency is fanned by rival politicians from the north. The armed forces have a budget of more than £4bn a year, but the governor of the worst-hit state claimed the terrorists are both better armed and better motivated. Little wonder there is such widespread belief that politicians care only about filling their pockets.

But for all these problems – not to mention the power cuts, the poverty afflicting two-thirds of the 173 million population, the paucity of public services – the election on 14 February is predicted to be the closest since the end of military dictatorship 16 years ago. Jonathan’s conservative People’s Democratic Party has not lost any of the subsequent presidential elections, and his government can at least boast of keeping debt down and Delta unrest at bay, while reforming agriculture and improving infrastructure.

His key opponent is Muhammadu Buhari, a 72‑year-old former military ruler and northern Muslim campaigning hard against corruption and insecurity in his fourth tilt at elected presidency. Unusually, he was seen as an iron-fisted fighter against graft during 20 months in power – a strong card to play against the current administration, dogged by allegations of stealing Nigeria’s oil wealth. Most infamously, the central bank governor was ousted last year after revealing £12bn in revenues were missing.

For all the intensity of political debate, patronage remains crucial in getting communities out to vote in a nation composed of 250 ethnic groups, giving the incumbent who controls oil wealth an advantage. Polling may prove impossible in parts of the north-east because of Boko Haram, and there are concerns too few voting cards have been printed. But officials insist the vote will go ahead. And if this President accused of weakness and indecision by critics emerges at the helm again, it would mark another extraordinary chapter in his story.

The man running Africa’s emerging economic powerhouse told his biographer the first time he saw a car was at the age of six, a Land Rover sending him scuttling into the bush in panic. Jonathan has often spoken about his impoverished childhood, walking miles to school without shoes and eating one meal a day. Despite this, he finished school and studied zoology at university before working as a educationalist, environmental protection officer and lecturer before moving into politics in 1998.

Many Nigerians liked this narrative of the ordinary man made good, something he played on in public, smiling from under his trademark black fedora. He was so quiet and unassuming that when serving as vice-president, a leaked US cable showed he was overlooked by diplomats compiling a list of the country’s most influential people. Even some of those who have fallen out with him say he is a simple person doing his best, blaming government failings on cronies and advisers.

His rise to power was far from uncontentious, however, with corruption rumours swirling around his unpopular wife Patience. She was investigated – but never convicted – for a multi-million-pound money-laundering scandal in 2006, while a WikiLeaks cable claimed her husband had “no control over her”, underlining an impression of weak leadership.

More damningly, his critics have included Olusegun Obasanjo, the former president and party leader who turned on his protégé a year ago, having been pivotal in Jonathan’s rise. He released a devastating 18-page critique of Jonathan’s rule, begging him not to seek re-election, saying it would be “morally flawed” and accusing him of putting ethnic and personal interests above those of the nation. There has been a tradition of the presidency rotating between southern Christians and northern Muslims.

Jonathan reportedly listens to Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti to unwind, although it is hard to believe the revolutionary musician who railed so hard against a corrupt military regime would return such affection were he still alive. Fela’s finest numbers included the searing “Coffin for Head of State”, while his musician son joined protests against fuel subsidy cuts. Yet when the President listens to such songs on the eve of possibly winning his second term at Nigeria’s helm, he must reflect sometimes on the remarkable prescience of his father all those years ago, who predicted such good luck for his son.


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