President Goodluck Jonathan defies critics ahead of Nigeria polls
Nigeria’s embattled president has insisted that rescheduled polls will go ahead on time and that should he be defeated, he would like to be remembered for insisting they were free and fair.
In a rare interview at State House in Lagos, the former colonial seat of government, Goodluck Jonathan conceded that opinion polls show him running “neck and neck” with his main rival, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, in elections delayed by six weeks to March 28 on security grounds.
In one particularly stinging rebuke, Olusegun Obasanjo, former president, accused Mr Jonathan of seeking to remain in his seat by “hook or crook” in the style of Laurent Gbagbo, the former president of Ivory Coast, whose refusal to concede in elections sparked a civil war.
It is hard to reconcile Mr Jonathan’s good-natured air with the malevolent intent his detractors now assign him. Until the price of oil crashed last year, he presided over a period of great optimism about Nigeria’s economic potential. But his presidency has also been dogged by crises, and a tendency to gaffes has reinforced elite prejudices about his humble origins in the Niger delta creeks.
He declines to respond directly to accusations by Mr Obasanjo, his one time mentor whom he calls a “father”. But the reference to Ivory Coast rankles, given the continental lead he took in 2011 in standing up to Mr Gbagbo.
“I have a reputation within Africa as one person who stands for credible elections and who believes leaders must respect their constitutional provisions on term limits. That’s what I want to leave behind,” he says, adding he will happily retreat to his village should he lose.
He is less sure his opponents will do the same. Gen Buhari’s campaign to restore morale to Nigeria’s army and crush corruption, has gathered momentum. Anything but opposition victory would be the result of foul play, his supporters claim.
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“Why must you feel that if you lose somebody rigged you out, but if you win there is no rigging,” says Mr Jonathan, who believes the tide will turn back in his favour in the next few weeks.
He also believes that Boko Haram extremists had planned a string of attacks on cities across Nigeria’s north to disrupt polling on February 14, the original date of the elections. The delay would allow the army time to pin down the terrorist group and retake a swath of territory in the remote northeast where they have attempted to carve out a strict Islamic state.
“We have to degrade them to a level where they will not cause problems on the day,” Mr Jonathan says. “I am very hopeful that all the territories under Boko Haram will be taken before the election, but even if we don’t take over all the territories, Boko Haram will not have that capacity to come and cause a crisis.”
Mr Jonathan is the son of a fisherman from the oil-producing Niger delta. He originally rose up the ladder of Nigerian politics with circumstance, and later Mr Obasanjo, assisting at every turn. Perceived as a loyal understudy when vice-president, he found himself at the top when his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua died in office in 2010.
Opinion in Nigeria was kinder to him then and he won the 2011 poll convincingly. Recently, he has been defined more by what is missing than what his government has put in place — the schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram last year and billions of dollars in oil revenues that the former central bank governor alleged were unaccounted for.
I have a reputation within Africa as one person who stands for credible elections and who believes leaders must respect their constitutional provisions on term limits– Goodluck Jonathan
Mr Jonathan cites a long list of government achievements: rebuilding the railways, restoring the road network, investing in education and presiding over a boom in agricultural production.
“Probably my means of communicating what the government has done to the public is weak,” he says, adding “that is one area I will look at properly” should he win a second term.
Partisan politics had stalled landmark legislation, he adds, in particular reforms aimed at opening up and commercialising the state oil company. This would he implies, have answered many of the questions about how Nigeria manages revenues from oil.
“The national assembly became so polarised, the divisions between the parties became so sharp, that the national interest was thrown overboard.”
Is he afraid Gen Buhari, who in his previous incarnation as military ruler in the 1980s threw businessmen and politicians suspected of fraud into jail, would come after some members of his government should he win?
“No,” Mr Jonathan says. “I am not worried . . . A military regime can set up kangaroo courts and tell them what to do. In a civilian dispensation there are limits.”
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From humble origins
Goodluck Ebele Azikiwe Jonathan was born in 1957 to a family of canoe makers in the remote village of Otuoke, the year after oil was discovered nearby in the Niger delta.
After stints as a customs officer, an education inspector and a lecturer, he studied for a doctorate in zoology in Port Harcourt, and worked for the regional environmental and development agency.
Mr Jonathan became deputy-governor of Bayelsa state in 1999, when the military handed power back to civilians. He took over as governor in 2005 when his predecessor was impeached after being charged with money laundering in the UK.
Handpicked to run as vice-president in Nigeria’s 2007 elections, he became president when his predecessor, Umaru Yar’Adua died in office in 2010. Mr Jonathan won elections a year later and is now seeking a second term.
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