Why you should care

Because Africa’s largest nation and economy is at a critical juncture in its history.

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, it turns out, for one pivotal world leader. For Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, good fortune has been more than a namesake — it’s been a way of life. From his humble roots as the son of a poor canoe-maker to his perch atop Africa’s most populous nation, Jonathan’s meteoric rise has been fueled by more than a few lucky breaks along the way.

Under Jonathan, a 57-year-old former zoologist with a fondness for black fedoras, Nigeria has grown to become Africa’s largest economy while also facing rising levels of inequality and unemployment (now at 24 percent ). And with lower gas prices eating into the profits of its largest industry, a series of corruption scandals engulfing his administration and escalating attacks from Islamic militants terrifying his constituents, it appears that Jonathan’s run of good luck could well be coming to an end with the upcoming election on Feb. 14.

For a time, Jonathan’s rags-to-riches tale seemed the embodiment of his nation’s own dreams and ambitions. “In my early days in school, I had no shoes, no school bags … but I never despaired,” he declared during his 2011 campaign. “Fellow Nigerians, if I could make it, you too can make it!”

Jonathan’s political rise appears fortuitous, if not accidental.

Born to a poor family from a remote region of the Nigerian Delta in 1957, young Goodluck’s very survival was fortunate: Seven of his eight siblings died in infancy. But he also benefited from a Western-style education in the largely Christian south of the country, a region that itself lucked out when oil was discovered there the year before Jonathan was born.

Likewise, Jonathan’s political rise appears fortuitous, if not accidental. After earning a Ph.D. in zoology, the soft-spoken scientist worked as an environmental protection officer before being talked into running for deputy governor of his home state of Bayelsa in 1999. After winning, he served without distinction until his boss was engulfed in a money-laundering scandal and Jonathan was elevated to governor. Shortly thereafter, the unassuming southern Christian was chosen by his center-right People’s Democratic Party as the running mate for Umaru Musa Yar’Adua to help balance the northern Muslim’s presidential ticket in the 2007 election. Three years later, fate once again intervened on Jonathan’s behalf when he became the nation’s acting leader after Yar’Adua fell ill and eventually died in May 2010. The next year — in his first campaign for major political office — Jonathan was elected president.

At first, the accidental president demonstrated remarkable political skill in overcoming intense northern opposition to his leadership and quelling ongoing unrest from rebel forces in the Delta. His administration has also succeeded at growing the economy, including a rejuvenated agricultural sector, as well as improving Nigeria’s railway and other transport systems. But Jonathan has largely failed to live up to his portentous name and promise. “When he first assumed power, he came into office under a strong wave of goodwill,” Hafsat Abiola, a prominent Nigerian human rights campaigner, tells OZY. “It seems now that much of that initial goodwill is gone. Most people now wonder if he has what it takes to solve the country’s challenges.”

Nigeria’s social and political fabric is tearing again.

They’re challenges that would be daunting for any leader. After years of civil struggle and military leadership, Nigeria is in the midst of its longest period of civilian government, and the country’s social and political fabric is tearing again. Under Jonathan’s watch, Boko Haram, the Islamic terrorist group, has taken over large swaths of territory in the north, murdered at least 3,000 people, kidnapped 270 schoolgirls, driven more than 1.5 million from their homes, and taken charge of a de facto caliphate the size of New Jersey .

The late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once said , “People say that if you find water rising up to your ankle that is the time to act, not only when it is around your neck.” Jonathan’s failure to confront Boko Haram when it was a divided group of local warlords — and to attend to the deep poverty and social exclusion in the north that has fueled its rise — has buried Nigeria up to its neck in a dire security situation.

 President of Nigeria Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan departs at the conclusion of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 25, 2014 in The Hague, Netherlands.

Goodluck Jonathan departs at the conclusion of the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit on March 25, 2014, in The Hague, Netherlands.

Source Bart Maat-Pool/Getty

The response of the Nigerian army — itself accused of human rights crimes — has been hindered by broader government corruption. Nigeria ranks as one of the world’s most corrupt nations (136 out of 175 on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index ), and Jonathan’s government has been plagued by several huge oil-corruption scandals involving billions of dollars diverted from the treasury to oil companies. Corruption quickly becomes a security issue when it depletes state funds. “Demoralized soldiers will not defeat Boko Haram,” says Abiola. “By failing to erect a firewall against corruption, the president weakened the impact of his response.”

Falling gas prices in a nation where oil accounts for 80 percent of government revenue make strengthening security operations even more difficult for Jonathan and could exacerbate rising income inequality in Nigeria. In response, a growing opposition to Jonathan has solidified around Muhammadu Buhari, a 72-year-old northern Muslim and former military ruler making his fourth bid for the presidency. Buhari’s tough-guy reputation and northern base make him a viable alternative at the ballot box, given Boko Haram’s growing threat, and Jonathan, despite the advantages (and millions of campaign petrodollars) afforded to the incumbent, looks vulnerable.

[If Jonathan wins the election,] a general uprising across northern Nigeria cannot be ruled out.

- Richard Joseph, Northwestern University professor and expert on African politics

“I think his popular base has eroded significantly since the last election,” says Steve McDonald, public policy scholar at the Wilson Center and former director of its Africa Program. “And, if the election is free and fair, he is in great danger of losing.”

The election also endangers Nigeria, a country where, according to Richard Joseph, a professor at Northwestern University and expert in African politics, “national elections have been flashpoints for upheaval.” If Jonathan wins, “a general uprising across northern Nigeria cannot be ruled out,” says Joseph — and the same could be said of a southern insurgency if he loses. The prospect of postelection violence, and an expanding caliphate in Nigeria, has drawn the United States’ attention and a recent visit from its secretary of state , but as John Kerry made clear, greater U.S. involvement hinges on whether Nigeria can pull through the election peacefully and in one piece.

By 2050, Nigeria is forecast to have more people than the U.S. , and the course of its economic and democratic development in the years ahead will have global consequences. Will Nigeria’s fortunate leader be the one to help it over that critical hump? Many are skeptical. “You have leaders who are also accidental presidents, like Harry Truman … who do rise to the occasion,” says Joseph, “but Jonathan has not been able to provide that level of national leadership.”

Nigeria will need more than good fortune to turn the next corner. It will need good leaders — whatever the significance of their names.

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