Goodluck Jonathan’s quiet public persona masks a political cunning. This skill can, at times, be the president’s shortcoming. As James Schneider explains, these qualities could make him Nigeria’s longest-serving civilian president, or the first to lose power at the ballot box.
For most of his life, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan has indeed lived up to his name. First, he became governor of his home state, Bayelsa, without needing to stand directly for election, and then in 2010, he repeated the trick as he ascended from the vice-presidency to the presidency after his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua, died midway through his term. Jonathan has been blessed with good luck. But now, after five years as president of Nigeria – one finishing Yar’Adua’s term, four under his own mandate – this luck may have run out.
Goodluck Jonathan’s presidency is historic. He is the first Ijaw to hold his office and his rise to the presidency after Yar’Adua’s death marked a positive step in the institutionalisation of the constitution. Unfortunately for Jonathan, his method of coming to power has haunted his administration.
The ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) had a gentleman’s agreement that the presidency would rotate between the “North” and “South” every eight years. Olusegun Obasanjo, from the South, served two terms (1999-2007) and was followed by Yar’Adua from the North. When Yar’Adua died, he had only served three years, but in accordance with the constitution, the presidency passed to his Southern vice-president, Jonathan.
Unfortunately for Jonathan, his method of coming to power has haunted his administration.
Many still thought it was the North’s turn, so Jonathan’s decision to run for the PDP ticket for the 2011 elections angered several northern politicians. They put forward former vice-president Atiku Abubakar to challenge him in the primaries but following their defeat fell in line for the election.
However, Jonathan never won his critics around permanently and further antagonised them by consolidating his control over the PDP and his intention to run again in 2015. Several of the northern PDP figures who opposed Jonathan’s candidature in 2011 crossed the floor to the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) in 2013.
Jonathan convincingly won the 2011 elections pledging to enact his “transformation agenda”. This policy framework sought to create a more effective, business-focused government. The agenda included policies of inflation targeting, conservative fiscal policies, plans for reducing recurrent expenditure and increasing capital expenditure, diversification of the economy and infrastructure development.
The agenda can at best be described as part achieved. Roads and railway lines have been built, a conservative macroeconomic framework has broadly been followed, and the economy is slowly diversifying. However, there have been many failures too. Attempts to reduce recurrent expenditure missed their targets, stifling the funds available for infrastructure and social programmes. The non-passing of the Petroleum Industry Bill has caused confusion in Nigeria’s most important sector. And the administration has been seen as weak on anti-corruption, especially after Jonathan pardoned his predecessor as governor of Bayelsa, who had been convicted of corruption.
Roads and railway lines have been built, a conservative macroeconomic framework has broadly been followed, and the economy is slowly diversifying. However, there have been many failures too.
Although Jonathan has a large communications team, his administration’s messaging has frequently been poor and occasionally woeful. The government has failed to tell its good stories, such as on the relative calm in the Niger Delta and infrastructure development, and often made bad stories worse. The handling of the Chibok incident, when Boko Haram kidnapped almost 300 schoolgirls, is the pre-eminent example.
Despite these failures and a retiring public demeanour, Jonathan is at heart a sharp and canny political operator. He has a knack of lining up short-term alliances and keeping his opponents guessing. In the polls, this shrewdness could drag him over the finish line. But those same skills can also be a weakness, leading Jonathan to interpret everything through a political lens. He has a tendency to view his problems − Boko Haram, mass street protests − as stirred up by political rivals, rather than issues in their own right to be tackled head on. This distant, political approach may have alienated enough of the electorate to cast him out of power.