Nigeria: New team in a hurry for change

Antony Goldman

After April’s successful elections, President Goodluck Jonathan’s new cabinet is aware that it has a narrow window of opportunity to make significant improvements in the country – especially through widely agreed reforms for the oil sector and improved political representation across this complex, and sometimes turbulent, country.


Goodluck Jonathan, born in 1957 in a quiet corner of what is now Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta, has enjoyed a remarkable political career. In an environment typically marked by ruthless ambition and relentless scheming, he almost effortlessly climbed the greasy poll of Nigerian politics in just five years, rising from a low-profile deputy governor of Bayelsa State in 2005 to President of Nigeria in 2010, a position confirmed by the latest elections held in April this year. 

His journey says as much about Nigerian politics as it does about President Jonathan’s character. When he was promoted from vice-president on the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua last year, Jonathan was reported to have told US diplomats (in one of the Wikileaks cables) that he was short on experience and did not know if he was up to the job – thus revealing a self-effacing humility rare in the conventional Nigerian politician. 

Such a rise to the highest office may simply be explained by the fact that Jonathan happened to be in the right place at the right time, but he has also shown he knows how to let the forces ranged against him play themselves out of the game. And now, having won re-election in his own right, Jonathan has begun to use the power of the presidency to define a clear and ambitious agenda. 

The appointment to the current cabinet on which the president was most insistent was that of the Finance Minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She had enjoyed huge success with the same portfolio in 2003-06, when she achieved Nigeria’s historic $30 billion debt-reduction deal – this was before she fell from political favour under President Olusegun Obasanjo and returned to the World Bank in Washington. 

One of the few cabinet members with genuine star quality as well as wide international recognition, Okonjo-Iweala now has to face up to the full range of domestic economic challenges: to promote growth, improve governance and raise living standards. Her previous experience showed her that delivery on policy targets alone was no guarantee of success in Nigeria’s often treacherous and contrary political waters and she is understood to have made it a condition of her return to government that she has authority over all areas relating to the economy. However, Okonjo-Iweala will still need to establish an effective network across the administration, including the Central Bank and state governments, if she is to succeed in effecting real change. 

To a large extent, government in Nigeria depends on the construction of a coalition of a range of constituencies, although the presidency does carry its own enormous influence. The principle of ‘federal character’ requires the cabinet to include one member from each of the 36 states, from a shortlist presented by the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) leader in every state. This leads to intense closed-door lobbying, often seemingly detached from the increasingly pressing realities of Nigeria. The irony was clear in June when Boko Haram, an Islamist group based in Nigeria’s north-east, managed to detonate a bomb at Abuja’s police headquarters, creating panic and concern just as the capital’s luxury hotels nearby were heaving with power brokers. The threat from Boko Haram was reinforced when it struck again in August with the suicide bombing of the UN building in Abuja, killing 20 and provoking investor concern about whether Nigeria’s security could now come under more sustained attack from what was previously considered a small movement with little influence. 

Some of the president’s closest advisers are certainly acutely aware of the increasing gap between how Nigeria is and how some in the political elite would like it to be presented. According to one: “We are from the Niger Delta. We know very well that if things do not improve quickly, they will deteriorate. We have a narrow window of opportunity. But we have reached the point in Nigeria where if we do not deliver, it will be our generation that will face the consequences.” 

As the government’s policy priorities become clearer in the coming months, a new balance of forces may well pit the presidency against the inherited political system on some of the trickiest issues. 

Ironically, the president’s very lack of experience could play in his favour. In the ever-changing Nigerian political environment, there are few jibes more cutting than to describe an opponent as a “veteran politician”. Indeed, familiarity with public administration and the management of political affairs brings scant praise for the older generation of career politicians, especially in core areas like law and order, infrastructure, and the delivery of basic services. 

There will be an appetite for new ideas, especially if the political elite can see an opportunity to capitalise on success – rather than, as so often in the past, pursuing the kind of politics that resents change and profits from preventing meaningful reform, both of the political system and of Nigeria’s unnecessarily shackled economy. 

The late President Umaru Yar’Adua said after his inauguration in May 2007: “The power of the presidency in Nigeria is not to be underestimated. We have a constitution, a cabinet and a National Assembly. But authority flows from the presidency.” It is this kind of leverage that critics believe allowed Jonathan to break what they maintain had been an unwritten code within the ruling PDP to stay on as president rather than give way to a candidate from the north of the country.

Jonathan’s rivals for the PDP nomination included some of the heaviest hitters in the northern Nigerian political establishment – former military ruler Ibrahim Babangida and former civilian Vice-President Atiku Abubakar. Although northern PDP delegates rallied round Atiku, he did not win the necessary support at the party’s key pre-election convention in January. 

This year’s polls were the fourth since the end of military rule in 1999, and they were clearly the best organised – under respected electoral commissioner Attahiru Jega – and the best financed at a cost of more than $1 billion. Jonathan’s two main rivals, Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler (1983-85) twice defeated in 2003 and 2007, and Nuhu Ribadu, a former anticorruption chief, were both from the north. The elections were not, however, a simple north-south issue. They revealed many of the challenges that prompt concern among investors about prospects for political stability, improved governance and greater institutional integrity in Nigeria. 

International observers, who had most sharply criticised the botched 2007 elections, had little difficulty in endorsing Jonathan’s comfortable victory on 18 April. This was despite a campaign marked in several states by violence and litigation, an embarrassing delay in polling and the multiple reports of irregularities, particularly in the parallel state-level elections. Disappointment with the results flared in some northern states, where bloody clashes claimed many lives. 

Overall, the elections did not indicate any real shift in the political culture where those seeking office typically are far more accountable to an elite group of power brokers than to the broad mass of voters. Buhari set up his Congress for Progressive Change because he became disillusioned with the All Nigeria People’s Party, on whose ticket he had stood in 2003 and 2007. While he attracted big crowds at rallies in the north, he found it hard to create an effective political machine, and struggled to shrug off perceptions that politicians attracted to his cause were mostly those out of favour with the PDP. His running mate, Pastor Bakare, had never stood for office before or worked in government, while a key supporter was Nasir El Rufai, who in 2003 and 2007 had worked hard to secure controversial victories for the PDP. Ribadu, running for the Action Congress of Nigeria, a party based in the south-west, did not manage to extend the party’s appeal beyond that region. 

According to a key Buhari aide: “In Nigeria we have the trappings of democracy but not the substance. Political parties are vehicles to deliver elected office. It is not about representation or accountability… Our big mistake was to try to make a short cut by campaigning on Buhari’s character rather than having a genuine party structure across the country that gave ownership from the bottom up.” 

President Goodluck Jonathan himself also emerged from the elections unconvinced about the merits of Nigeria’s current electoral system. Three months after the polls, Jonathan announced plans to propose a change in the constitution to replace the current two 4-year term limit for the presidency and state governors by a single, longer term. This was not a policy that he had shared with voters during his election campaign, but it is an initiative with supporters. It could prove to be the central debate over the course of what is already turning out to be no ordinary term in office in Nigeria. 

New issues are arising, even as earlier problems find solutions (it is little more than a year since the militants of the Niger Delta posed the main threat to stability). Boko Haram’s attacks have coincided with a bout of communal violence in Plateau State – an area sharply divided between Christian and Muslim political contenders. Both problems have evolved out of a failure to resolve local grievances effectively in the past, but are not beyond solution now. As in other parts of Nigeria, people are looking for better government and for more of the economic benefits still shared by the few.

About the author:

Antony Goldman is an independent political and business risks consultant, specialising in Nigeria.


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November 16, 2011 12:57 pm

The unwritten code of the all-powerful PDP is broken by the inexperienced zoologist who just keeps happening to be in the right place at the right time?? No one climbs the greasy poll that easily. ‘Nice guy’ Jonathan may have more up his sleeve than his ‘good luck’…

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