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Good luck, Jonathan

Nigeria has a new acting president today, after the country’s parliament finally voted that the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, should stand in for Umaru Yar’Adua. The latter has been missing in action — rumored dead or worse — for several months now, leaving the country’s leadership in disarray. So who, exactly, is now leading Africa’s ...

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

Nigeria has a new acting president today, after the country’s parliament finally voted that the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, should stand in for Umaru Yar’Adua. The latter has been missing in action — rumored dead or worse — for several months now, leaving the country’s leadership in disarray.

So who, exactly, is now leading Africa’s most populous country? 

Much of what I learned about Nigeria’s new acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, I learned in a six hour traffic jam on the one-lane, pothole-laden road between Port Harcourt and Yenagoa, the capital of Jonathan’s home, Bayelsa. I was on my way there for an interview with someone in the "political" side of the Niger Delta rebel movement. But the rest of Nigeria — literally the entire rest — was on their way to Yenagoa for the funeral of Jonathan’s father, who had just passed away. Governors from all 36 states, traditional leaders from the entire Delta region, and the President himself were all trying to drive in on that one, very busy, road. My run-down Honda didn’t stand a chance against their imported 4-wheel drive luxury vehicles. I had a lot of time to ask my driver (and the other near-parked cars on the road) about Jonathan.

Despite the entire country flooding in for his father’s funeral, the truth is that Goodluck Jonathan is not terribly well known in Nigeria as a politician. His father, who had just died when I was trapped on the road, was a humble man, not rumored to be terribly rich.  One man stuck with me on the road remembered that Jonathan senior was the kind of man who always remembered eveyone’s name.

Jonathan the son, a zoologist, came to prominence by accident, when he was promoted from deputy governor to head man in Bayelsa state in 2005, when the incumbent was impeached. In 2007, then-presidential candidate Umaru Yar’Adua picked Jonathan as his running mate. Ostensibly, Jonathan’s selection was more about regional politics than Jonathan himself: Nigeria’s traditionally Muslim North was getting the Presidential bid, so the running mate needed to come from the South. The Niger Delta was an added perk, perhaps to show that Yar’Adua was serious about tackling the insurgency there. 

But the Niger Delta militants have never really liked Jonathan too much, or at least not lately. He never emerged as a powerful leader for the Niger Delta cause in Abuja. And in 2007, militants blew up his house in Bayelsa (not a very subtle hint.) Jonathan was partly responsible for leading the amnesty late last year that saw hundreds of rebels give up their guns. But now, all hints indicate that the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) will pick up fighting where it left off. At the end of the day, it was Yar’Adua they must have made deals with.

Nor is the North too terribly fond of Jonathan. Many of the region’s governor’s resisted replacing Yar’Adua with his VP. Again, this is less about character as it is about whose turn it is to eat. Nigeria has a traditional, un-written pact to alternate presidents eight years for the North, and eight for the South. The North is still supposed to have five more years. Now, Northern governors are finding themselves having to deny rumors that they are plotting a coup. (Even when I was there in 2007 and 2008, those rumors were prevelant. Everyone knew that Yar’Adua was sick.)

All this is to say … I’ve got no idea (nor does anyone, really) how Goodluck Jonathan is going to do in the hot seat. Up until now, his political career has been largely built on posturing — his being from the right region at the right time. Now, he’ll have to prove that he is more than just a regional man, while still placating the Niger Delta, where his "home constituency" will certainly expect patronage to begin to flow.

I won’t be the first to say it today, but: Good luck, Jonathan. He’ll surely need it.

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