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In the spotlight: Goodluck Jonathan

By Donu Kogbara
Posted on Thursday, 10 February 2011 09:42

Jonathan won the primaries of Nigeria’s ruling PDP party in January, but upcoming elections will test the president’s tactical skills, campaign charisma and ability to face up to a myriad of political crisis points.

When delegates to the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) convention on 14 January elected President Goodluck Jonathan as flag-bearer for the presidential elections in mid-April, they confirmed some realities about political life in Nigeria. So far, it has not been a place where sitting heads of state are defeated by their rivals – whether such rivals are fellow party members or not.

However, the conclusive defeat of Jonathan’s main challenger for the nomination, former vice-president Atiku Abubakar – who received just 805 votes to Jonathan’s 2,736 – has prompted claims of widespread malfeasance. Rumours abound about bribes offered by both sides, while others claim that Jonathan’s campaigners threatened dissidents with investigation by the security services if they did not give their support. Philosophical types say there was murk on both sides.?The odds are on Jonathan winning the presidency in April, despite reservations about him, but it is likely to be a serious political fight given the strength of the opposition candidates: former anti-corruption czar Nuhu Ribadu for the Action Congress of Nigeria, and the austere ex-military leader General Muhammadu Buhari for the Congress for Progressive Change.

Much is made of Goodluck Jonathan’s name and his meteoric rise – almost without hitch – from provincial politician to national leader. Jonathan became governor of Bayelsa State in late 2005 after the state assembly impeached governor Diepreye Alamieyeseigha. His friends say Jonathan was shell-shocked when he was catapulted onto the national stage as vice-president in 2007, and equally dazed when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua’s death in May last year turned him into the country’s first commander-in-chief from the Niger Delta.

Jonathan can come across as a timid man, who finds the spotlight daunting and who is not sure that he can cope with his position. But it would be rash to dismiss him as a weak and accidental leader who lacks the skills of statesmanship. Although he lacks charisma, Jonathan does not lack brains. He has a doctorate in zoology and was an academic before he went into politics. Some Nigerians criticise his political style as dull, low-key and passionless. Yet Jonathan is naturally calm and maintains a cool head under pressure – a useful trait given the myriad ethnic, religious, economic and political crises with which he must grapple.


20 November 1957
Born in Otueke, Ogbia Local Government Area

May 1999
Elected deputy governor of Bayelsa State

April 2007
Elected national vice-president

May 2010
Becomes national president

14 January 2011
Chosen as PDP presidential candidate

Many assumed that if a Niger Deltan became president, the militants in the oil-rich region would end their attacks on foreign installations. Much to Jonathan’s embarrassment, he has not been able to control militants from his constituency. Worst of all was the bomb attack that killed more than 12 people in Abuja on independence day in October last year, for which the militants from the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility.

In the equally poverty-stricken north, Islamist militants have attacked police stations and set off bombs. It does not help that some northern PDP politicians, led by Atiku, have described Jonathan as a usurper who has stolen a mandate they regard as theirs. This is because they argue that the rules on regional rotation of party posts mean that it is still the north’s turn to provide the PDP candidate in the presidential elections. Jonathan will have to try to minimise northern anxieties in order to prevent another candidate from building up too strong of a base of support there.

Accordingly, Jonathan’s candidacy and the coming elections are critical tests for the party and Nigeria’s political system. If he handles them ineptly, the PDP may splinter and cause political chaos, yet if Jonathan manages them well, Nigeria will finally start to come of age.

For more on Nigeria read our special report on Nigeria at 50.

This article was first published in the February 2011 edition of The Africa Report

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