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Life after power: Nigeria’s Goodluck Jonathan gets a second chance

By Eromo Egbejule
Posted on Tuesday, 22 October 2019 13:03

Former president Goodluck Jonathan on an electoral observation mission in Liberia in 2017. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Retired Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan may seem a surprising choice for UN Special Envoy on Crisis Management given his lassitude over the Chibok girls crisis.

When UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Goodluck Jonathan as his Special Envoy on Crisis Management in early October it was the first time Jonathan was in the limelight since his presidency ended on 29 May 2015.

These days, he is trying to enjoy a quiet retirement with an occasional foray into diplomacy and local politics.

But we shouldn’t forget his remarkable political career.

As the first sitting president in Nigeria to accept defeat in an election, Jonathan won a lot of kudos for his democratic credentials, telling his compatriots that fighting over the vote was not worth a single drop of blood.

He has also earned ridicule and suspicion in his retirement for having presided over a government that allowed billions of dollars to be funnelled out of the country in suspect oil deals.

The best of luck, the worst of luck

Jonathan was dubbed the ‘accidental President’ when, in February 2010, he became acting head of state after his boss Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was incapacitated by kidney disease. Four months later, Jonathan became substantive president when Yar’Adua died.

Before Jonathan, no other politician from the Niger Delta had made it to the presidency.

  • It is the Delta region’s oil wealth that makes Nigeria the biggest producer in Africa and finances the country’s superclass. Yet the Delta is mired in penury and environmental degradation while federal security forces crack down on its opposition movements.

Jonathan was the only politician outside the military, aristocratic, political or business elite to reach Nigeria’s highest office. Since independence in 1960, all the other heads of state have been drawn from a ruling class of privileged families spanning the officers mess, the polo grounds and the elite academies.

Corruption creates a vacuum

The son of a fisherman, with a PhD in environmental science, this political outsider was drafted as a running mate to the mercurial Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in the Bayelsa state elections in 1999. When Alamieyeseigha was arrested in Britain, Jonathan stepped into the governor’s job.

Jonathan was picked as running mate to Yar’Adua in the 2007 elections after the most prominent candidates had been ruled out by the anti-corruption agency. Three years later, Jonathan was president. And he and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) went on to win the 2011 elections in the face of accusations of widespread fraud, followed by violent clashes in northern Nigeria.

At first, Jonathan appeared to be a reluctant, as well as an accidental president. Jonathan never looked at ease in the spotlight. Neither did he look in control of the government, let alone the armed forces at a time when the country’s security threats were escalating.

That reluctance may have made it easier for Jonathan to place that call to his rival Muhammadu Buhari in March 2015, conceding defeat in the presidential elections to the opposition coalition, the All Progressives’ Congress.

In the disputed polls four years earlier Jonathan had beaten Buhari by 10 million votes. But by 2015 some of Jonathan’s key allies had defected to Buhari’s camp.

In retirement, Jonathan shuffles between his country house in Otuoke in Bayelsa state and a duplex in Abuja. He turns up at international and local conferences, speaking about political tolerance at a time when the mainstream discourse is heading the other way. On the strength of his acceptance of defeat in the 2015 elections, Jonathan has led several election observer missions across Africa.

Boko Haram mistakes

Guterres’s choice of Jonathan as his Special Envoy on Crisis Management might seem bizarre, however, given the Jonathan government’s record on dealing with the Boko Haram insurgency in north-east Nigeria.

Jonathan reached his lowest ebb when he failed to act with any urgency when the news broke of the abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in Chibok by Boko Haram fighters. An international #BringBackOurGirls” campaign was launched, winning support from figures such as Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.

As many as 100 of the girls are still missing, others are known to have forced into marriage. Even in retirement, Jonathan can’t escape the crisis.

Britain’s former Prime Minister David Cameron referred to the abductions in his memoir, For the Record, published this year:

  • “As the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign spread across the world, we embedded a team of military intelligence experts in Nigeria and sent spy planes and Tornadoes with thermal imaging to search for the missing girls. Amazingly, from the skies above a forest three times the size of Wales, we managed to locate some of them. But Nigeria’s President, Goodluck Jonathan, seemed to be asleep at the wheel. When he eventually made a statement, it was to accuse the campaigners of politicising the tragedy. And, absolutely crucially, when we offered help to rescue the girls we had located, he refused.”

As Cameron’s accusations were reported across Nigeria this year, Jonathan fired back, issuing a statement that claimed Britain’s former Prime Minister hated him because he had frustrated the campaign to legalise gay marriage:

  • “As President of Nigeria, I came under unbearable pressure from the Cameron administration to pass legislation supporting LGBTQ Same Sex marriage in Nigeria. My conscience could not stomach that because, as President of Nigeria, I swore on the Bible to advance Nigeria’s interests and not the interest of the United Kingdom or any foreign power.”

Instead, in January 2014 Jonathan signed into law the Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Bill, which had been backed almost unanimously by the National Assembly.

But the story doesn’t end there. In mid-2016, Jonathan pitched up in the offices of Bloomberg News in London’s business district to hold forth on politics and morality. It was a foreign tour, partly organised by the Crosby Textor lobbying company, whose chief executive Lynton Crosby is close to Britain’s Conservative Party.

On this occasion Jonathan’s message was different again. He told the bemused journalists in Bloomberg’s briefing room that it had been a serious mistake for Nigeria to outlaw same sex marriage and, in the interests of social tolerance, he had changed his mind on the issue.

But in the crush after the briefing, Jonathan was less than forthcoming when journalists tried to quiz him about a report in Britain’s daily The Sun that he had bought a 1,100m² house on the St George’s Hill Estate in Weybridge, where the going price for such property is between $14m and $20m. His minders quickly ushered him into a side room.

Oil money mystery

Although the current government in Nigeria blames Jonathan for many of the country’s woes, there seems to be a clandestine pact between Buhari and his predecessor not to prosecute the former first family. The closest that the police have come so far is getting Mrs Patience Jonathan to forfeit billions of naira and other monies in foreign currencies to the government.

Jonathan’s name has cropped up in the trial of international oil company officials in Milan linked to the sale of the OPL245 licence to Royal Dutch Shell and Italy’s ENI. Documents in the case accuse Jonathan, a friend of former oil minister Dan Etete, of benefiting from corrupt payments to secure the licence. Jonathan, however, denies all wrongdoing.

Colonel Sambo Dasuki, national security adviser in Jonathan’s government, remains in detention despite court orders for his release. Robert Azibaola, a cousin to Jonathan, was acquitted in May. He had been held for months on charges linked to a $40m fraud cause said to have involved Dasuki.

Some business people say the Jonathans have taken significant shares in commercial banks, but little evidence has been produced so far. Always a supportive wife, Patience is by far the stronger-willed of the duo, and is said to be running the family’s business ventures.

Little influence at home

Many former presidents like to throw their weight around and influence local elections, but Jonathan barely calls the shots in the Bayelsa State chapter of the PDP, now in opposition.

His attempt at installing his own candidate for the governorship elections in Bayelsa due in November fell flat. He was comprehensively outmanoeuvred by outgoing governor Seriake Dickson.

At the national level, Jonathan still has some loyal followers but is essentially a figurehead with little political influence. He looks set to end up as an amiable lightweight serving on PDP committees or its Board of Trustees.

It may seem an appropriate fate for the unassuming university lecturer who rose to become the first president of Niger Delta origins, but disappointed so many of his supporters after he won power.

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