Friday, 21 May 2010

From accidental to actual President: Goodluck Jonathan rises without trace

Friday, 21 May

Dear Confidentialers,

Nigeria has a new president, a new vice president and a new managing director of the state oil company – all in just two weeks after a year of political stasis. Goodluck Jonathan has moved smartly through the incarnations of Vice President, Acting President to Real President – and now perhaps Presidential candidate in the elections due in a year's time.

As Nigeria's first civilian president from a minority group, Jonathan's presidency marks a big power-shift – even if it lasts less than a year.

Nigerians don't have long to wait. Jonathan has promised to improve seriously if not fix the country's scandalous electricity crisis, to pursue anti-corruption cases against leading politicians and businesspeople without fear or favour, and reform the corrupt electoral system.

All that is a massive undertaking. But it's safe to bet that if there is no tangible progress by the end of the year, then Jonathan will fail and perhaps fail badly. The first six months of 2011 will be unfortunately consumed by elections – whether or not Jonathan participates.

Politics accelerated after the sad announcement of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's death on 5 May. A respectful tribute to the late leader and Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as Commander-in-Chief a few hours later.

After a week and extensive soundings, Jonathan announced he wanted his Vice President to be Kaduna State governor, Namadi Sambo. 'Namadi who?' was the common response. Many northerners suspected a vile plot by Jonathan to appoint an unknown to make him look better.

In fact, Sambo has a good-ish reputation as a governor: like the late Yar'Adua, he is very cautious and has avoided the spending scandals to which state governors are prone.

Sambo's appointment doesn't solve the main political riddle in Nigeria. Will Jonathan stand as presidential candidate for the ruling PDP in next year's elections? Or can he?

Some northern politicians – and putative candidates – insist the gentleman's agreement within the PDP to alternate the presidency between northern and southern Nigerians must be observed. And after (not quite) one term of Yar'Adua, northerners say they have the right to another term before handing the prize back to the south.

Two problems here. Nigerian politicians, like their counterparts everywhere, are not a very gentlemanly bunch. Secondly, incumbency will give Jonathan a big advantage if he can push through the promised reforms.

The next few months will be critical. Some in the south will give him the benefit of the doubt if the power supply improves and if credibly independent figures are appointed to the electoral commission. And some of the younger generation of reformers in the north will back that agenda.

Somehow, Jonathan will have to convince northern voters that he's serious. In 1999, many in the north favoured the southern presidential candidate, Olusegun Obasanjo, against a rival northern candidate. But they were hugely disappointed and are less inclined to risk their votes again.

And a galaxy of northern political and ex-military stars led by the Maradona of Nigerian politics, General Ibrahim Babangida, is jostling to run for the presidency on the ticket of one party or perhaps for several parties at the same time.

Others in contention include Jonathan's new national security advisor General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, Kwara state governor Bukola Saraki, and former governor of Kaduna State Ahmed Makarfi.

What they have in common is an aversion to ideology or even policy statements beyond a commitment to deliver a 'better life' for Nigerians but drawing on massive cash reserves they will bring a US-style razamattazz to next year's campaign.

And most of them are vastly more experienced and cannier politicians than Jonathan. That's why some of his colleagues are advising him to dedicate himself to power and voting reforms over the next six months. Success there could neutralise the petro-naira and campaign stunts of his rivals. For once, it looks like the votes in Nigeria's presidential election have not been counted in advance.

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