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Former Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan weighs comeback amid legal hurdles

By Akin Irede
Posted on Thursday, 6 May 2021 14:59

Former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks during the World Economic Forum on Africa in Abuja, Nigeria. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba, File)

Nigeria's former President, Goodluck Jonathan, is close to making a final decision on whether to contest in the presidential election of 2023, The Africa Report understands. This comes after several months of political calculations.

Jonathan was defeated in the 2015 election which saw Muhammadu Buhari emerge president. This was the first time in the nation’s turbulent political history that a sitting president lost an election.

But Jonathan’s case was also peculiar because he conceded defeat even before the final result of the election was announced, a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa which is known for its many ‘sit-tight’ leaders.

Prior to his defeat in 2015, Jonathan was forced to deal with a legal hurdle before he could contest.

When the time comes, if he wants to contest, he has every right to do so,” – Ifedayo Adedipe, lawyer for Jonathan’s wife.

Having been elected vice-president in 2007, he took over as president in 2010 following the death of Umaru Yar’Adua. Jonathan, who hails from the minority Ijaw tribe in the central south part of Nigeria, then came under intense pressure from northerners not to contest in the 2011 election.

It was deemed that doing so would upset the zoning agreement in the Peoples Democratic Party, which had envisaged rotation of power between the north and south every eight years. Yar’Adua’s death, barely three years into his first tenure, had however altered this arrangement and Jonathan’s ascension threw a spanner in the works.

One term president

To the chagrin of the north, Jonathan contested in the 2011 election and won convincingly in the south, securing 16 out of its 17 states. He lost in 12 out of the 19 northern states.

Four years later, Jonathan was again preparing to contest, a move which was rejected by many northerners. A legal argument also ensued on whether Jonathan would be inaugurated for a third time as president; the matter was taken to court for interpretation. Both the Federal High Court and the Appeal Court ruled at different times that Jonathan was indeed qualified to contest.

The Appeal Court ruled: “After the death of Umaru Yar’Adua, there was no election or by-election.  President Jonathan was merely asked to assume the office of the president in line with doctrine of necessity. He was not elected as the president but was made to assume office by virtue of Yar’Adua’s death. Having exhausted the late president’s tenure, he sought for his party’s ticket and ran for the office of the president successfully in 2011 general election. He is therefore currently serving his first tenure of office and if he so wishes, he is eligible to further seek his party’s ticket through the party’s primary election and to run for office in 2015.”

After Jonathan’s defeat that year, there was an argument over whether a vice-president who completes the tenure of a president should be restricted to having only one extra term or should be allowed to serve two full terms. Eventually, in 2018, President Buhari signed a constitutional amendment which would allow a vice-president who completes the term of his principal to serve only one full term.

Southern discomfort

To this effect, it remains unclear if Jonathan would be affected by this new law or not given his antecedent. Dr. Law Mefor, the vice chairman of Project Nigerian President of South East Extraction (Project -NIPSEE), believes that the next president should be from the south-east region. He argues that Jonathan has been affected by the constitutional amendment and thus has no right to contest.

Mefor said he intends to go to court to stop Jonathan from contesting, if declares his intention to do so.

“I wanted to go to court last year when I heard about Jonathan’s plans to contest but those close to him assured me that he would not contest so I shelved the plan. However, the moment he does otherwise, I will be in court,” he said.

But a senior advocate, Ifedayo Adedipe, who represents Jonathan’s wife Patience, said the constitutional amendment deliberately targetted the former President. He however argues that the law cannot take retroactive effect.

“Jonathan had already become president before the constitutional amendment. So, the law can only affect future vice-presidents. When the time comes, if he wants to contest, he has every right to do so,” Adedipe said.

Northern embrace?

It is believed that some northerners support the former president because regardless of how things go, he cannot possibly serve more than four years, as power will have returned to the north. A delegation of northern governors visited Jonathan late last year, including the acting chairman of the ruling APC party, and Governor of Yobe State, Mai Mala Buni.

But does southern Nigeria love Jonathan to the extent of sacrificing its opportunity to lead for eight years? With the election barely 700 days away, a great deal can still happen, says the expert.

Jonathan’s spokesman, Ikechukwu Eze, did not respond to repeated calls on Tuesday. However, support groups are expected to begin politicking soon, even though Jonathan — just like other hopefuls — has refused to state whether he will be contesting or not. But should he decide to contest, the ball is definitely in the court.

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