President Jonathan Fights for Survival as Nation Turns Against party of Power


Goodluck Jonathan may win election despite the unpopularity of the People’s Democratic party.


The crowd gathers around the polling station officials, gesticulating angrily. Several pages of the voters’ register are missing and about 700 people will not be able to vote. The young man who brought the ballot box on the back of a motorbike looks terrified. Suddenly soldiers appear. A sergeant strides towards the crowd pointing his gun, bayonet fixed. Terrified, they tumble over each other to get away.


That morning the military’s Major General Muhammad Abubakar warned that the army had been told to shoot to kill anyone who tried to disrupt the poll. “If such a person resists arrest we will shoot him,” he said.


Welcome to Nigerian democracy, three weekends of voting that will change the political climate in Africa’s most populous nation. Last weekend they voted for parliamentarians; next weekend it will be for governors. This weekend is the big one: a presidential race likely to install Goodluck Jonathan, a steady former zoology lecturer, as the country’s third elected president in the 16 years since military rule ended.


It’s been a bumpy ride. The conduct and integrity of elections in the post-military era have grown progressively worse. The 2007 poll was a violent farce, universally condemned. This time Nigerians were told it would be different. One election observer from a local NGO, who preferred to remain anonymous, said authorities had promised to raise their game.


“The last election represented, at the most, 10% of the will of the people. We told Jega [Professor Attahiru Jega, the electoral commissioner] that he should get this up to 60%. He said he would make it 80%.”But on 2 April polls for the legislature opened only to be closed and cancelled at midday because voting materials had not been delivered in some areas. A frisson went through Nigeria. Chaos has come again, many thought. But, in truth, the chaos has never really gone away.


Politically and economically, Nigeria dominates west Africa and is second only to South Africa in political weight in the continent. It is fabulously endowed, having the largest population in Africa – around 150 million people. It pumps more oil than any other African country, much of it to the US, and has at least 50bn barrels still to be sucked out. It has vast untapped mineral resources and its economy has grown at 6% or 7% for the past few years.


More and more global companies are acknowledging that if you are going to invest in Africa, you have to be in Nigeria. Sales of beer, Maggi cubes and toilet paper, a local index of the rising middle class, are rising rapidly. But Nigeria is also bottom of the league table of progress towards the Millennium Development Goals and going backwards. The public education and health systems have all but collapsed. Since 1990, the proportion of Nigerians living in poverty – less than $1.25 a day – has increased from 49% to 77%.


If the figures are to be believed, recent economic growth has not only failed to bring mass development, it has made the masses poorer. The truth is that Nigeria is a failed state as a deliverer of safety, health and education to its people, but a very successful state for those who own and control or benefit from its increasingly dynamic economy. It is believed to have more millionaires than any other African country.


Writing in the Nigerian newspaper This Day last week, columnist Arnold Obomanu said: “Corruption is so ubiquitous that it has become the default way of getting things done … Impunity grows on a daily basis.”


After the outcry over the previous elections, the government put in effort and money, sacking the commissioner and replacing him with Jega, a respected academic. A voter education programme was established. An electronic voter registration system was brought in at great cost, identifying the 72.5 million voters by photograph and fingerprint.Last Saturday, northerners and southerners voted for different parties but both voted massively against the perennial party of power, the People’s Democratic party (PDP) to which Jonathan belongs, overturning its huge majorities in both Senate and House of Representatives.


At the polling station in the State House itself, the ruling party was humiliatingly defeated. But because the 2007 election was a farce of rigging and intimidation, it is impossible to know whether this is a political shift or what would have happened four years ago had there been no rigging. What is clear is that even since 2007 the gulf between the Hausa-speaking Muslim north and the rest of the country has deepened.


Nigeria has more than 400 languages and as many cultures and communities who see the country and its politics very differently. So to have such a clear and credible pattern at last week’s polls nationwide is remarkable. And although 117 ballot boxes were reported stolen, it looks as if people voted freely and knew what they were doing. The process was – at the polling station stage – remarkably transparent. As each one closed the ballots were counted in public, each one held up for the crowd to see, its chosen party read out then placed in a pile. Then each pile was counted out loud, “One … two … three …”, the crowd joining in the chant. The final result was thoroughly photographed and texted by mobile phone. It is hard to see how those results could be falsified.


Jonathan will not have an easy ride. Picked as running mate to Umaru Yar’Adua, a northern aristocrat, four years ago, he was catapulted into the limelight when the president died of kidney disease last May. His advance was not smooth. Under an unwritten agreement between all major parties known as “zoning”, the presidency is supposed to rotate between north and south. President Olusegun Obasanjo from the south had two terms and Yar’Adua did not complete one so northerners felt they should retain the presidency. Jonathan, who comes from the Niger Delta, toughed it out but promised he would not seek a second term.

He has not said, however, where his successor should come from.


Many of the former armed militants in the Niger Delta have become Jonathan’s special advisers. His inner cabinet is entirely from his own area, as are his most powerful ministers. Close to him and the most powerful is Diezani Alison-Madueke, the petroleum minister. She controls all contracts for exporting and importing oil and allocating new concessions.


His main challenger is retired General Muhammadu Buhari, a northern Muslim who overthrew the elected government in 1983 and was president for two years before being overthrown by another general. He waged an authoritarian “war against indiscipline”, particularly against corruption. He touched many powerful interests and to this day the northern politico business bosses hate him.


The ordinary people of the north voted massively for his Congress for Progressive Change candidates last Saturday. In the south-west people voted for other opposition parties and the PDP lost seat after seat. Latest indications are that the PDP will barely control the Senate and House of Representatives.


“This comes from hatred of the PDP which has been in power since 1999. It has brought no development but relentless stealing and corruption. That’s the perception,” said one western diplomat. Jonathan, however, is liked better than his party.


Faced with a straight choice between Jonathan and Buhari, many voters may plump for the sitting president even though they voted against his party in the other elections. He does, moreover, have some support in the north, enough for him to comply with the regional representation formula which demands that winners must win 25% in two-thirds of the 36 states.


Buhari enjoys almost no support in the south. If, as looks likely, there is a run-off between them, it is just possible that Buhari will win the greatest number of votes overall but will be disqualified because of lack of support in the south.


A minority southern president whose party has tenuous control of the legislature would have to make so many deals to make anything work, he would be a lame duck president from day one. That would be a recipe for four years of dangerous instability.


Pat Utomi, a respected economist and commentator who was a presidential candidate in 2007, said there had been an attempt to dissociate Jonathan from the PDP.


“People may want an alternative but Jonathan will probably win a run-off with Buhari, who in many ways is unacceptable to so many people. So with the failure of the opposition to unite around one candidate and faced with a run-off between Jonathan or Buhari, many of them may vote for the sitting president.”


Three weekends of elections Saturday’s presidential vote is the second of three elections on successive weekends in Nigeria – for parliament, head of state and then state governors.


EU observers said the parliamentary vote had passed off relatively well, despite chaotic organisation of voting materials which resulted in all three elections being postponed by a week. The 72.5 million registered voters have 54 parties to choose from, but only 20 presidential candidates.


Electoral law says that presidential candidates must secure 25% of the vote in two-thirds of Nigeria’s 36 states. Under a new system, the ballots are counted at polling stations before being collated at regional centres. The aim is to prevent falsification of results after the ballot boxes have left the polling stations.


State governors have real power under the new constitution and can spend their budgets as they please. This means that, for most Nigerians, the power struggle at state level affects their lives more than the presidency or the 360 seats in the House of Representatives and the 109 senators.


Richard Dowden writes for The Guardian of London. He is the director of the Royal African Society


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