By Gwynne Dyer
Nigeria’s president, Goodluck Jonathan, has lived up to his name again. Three minutes after he left an election rally in the northern city of Gombe last week Monday, a suicide bomber blew herself up in the nearby parking lot. “The president had just passed the parking lot and we were trailing behind his convoy when the explosion happened,” said a local witness, Mohammed Bolari. But Jonathan’s luck held.
His rival for the presidency in the election on Feb. 14, former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari, also has his share of luck. Last July he barely escaped an assassination attempt in the northern city of Kaduna. As in Jonathan’s case, the attack was almost certainly mounted by Boko Haram, the self-proclaimed affiliate of “Islamic State” that now rules an area about the size of Belgium in northeastern Nigeria.
Good luck for them, but it’s not so easy to say that it was lucky for Nigeria. Africa’s most populous country by far (180 million people) has a long history of dreadful presidents, but these two both rank quite high in that list.
Buhari has been president before. After a lengthy period of military rule, Nigeria got an elected civilian president in 1979 – who unfortunately proved to be spectacularly corrupt and incompetent. So in 1984 General Buhari seized power and imposed military discipline on the nation. The military then stayed in power for another fifteen years – but Buhari lasted only 20 months.
He jailed hundreds of politicians, officials and businessmen for corruption. Most were probably guilty, but he didn’t bother with proof. As part of his “War on Indiscipline,” he ordered Nigerians to form neat queues at bus stops, and sent whip-wielding soldiers to enforce the order. Civil servants who were late for work were publicly humiliated by being forced to do frog jumps.
So Buhari was overthrown by another general after only twenty months – but as soon as democracy returned in 1999, he began his campaign to return to the presidency. Every four years he runs again, and this time he might even make it. That’s partly because the four main opposition finally united and made him their candidate, but it’s also because Goodluck Jonathan is such a hopeless case.
Jonathan is clearly intelligent – he has a PhD in zoology – but he has a reputation as unimaginative, un-ambitious man who rose to the presidency almost by accident. He was a humble environmental officer for the Niger Delta Development Commission when the governor of his home state, Bayelsa, chose him as his deputy. Then the governor went to prison for corruption, and Jonathan became governor.
From there he was picked as a safe running mate for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner who needed a Christian southerner (but not a potential rival) to balance the ticket. Then Yar’Adua died, and Jonathan became president of Nigeria. By accident, so to speak.
That was six years ago, however, and Jonathan ran in his own name in 2011. Now he’s seeking a second term as president, so we can forget the bit about his not being ambitious. Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to dismiss the claim that he is inept, inert and unimaginative, and that most of the people around him are corrupt and very greedy.
When 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria last April, it took Jonathan forty days even to mention the incident. Ten thousand Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram in the past year, but he didn’t even mention the organization’s name in the speech launching his re-election campaign.
When the governor of the central bank, Lamido Sanusi, pointed out last year that $20 billion had gone missing from the state oil company in only 18 months, Jonathan responded by dismissing him from his job. He has been a disaster as president – but would an unrepentant ex-dictator like Buhari be any better? Nigeria deserves a better choice, but the system was not designed to produce that.
“The Nigerian system was designed by colonialists to extract as much as possible and transfer it to [an elite group],” said Folarin Gbadebo-Smith, director of the Lagos-based Centre for Public Policy, in an interview with The Observer. “From time that group changes – first it was colonial masters, then the military, then a select group of citizens. So from that point of view, the government is functioning as it should be.”