Thursday, February 11, 2010

Good luck, Jonathan

WEARING the wide-brimmed hat favoured by tribal chiefs in his corner of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan this week assumed office as the country’s acting president. In a televised address to his 150m people, the erstwhile vice-president said that the “circumstances” that had led to his promotion were “uncommon, sober and reflective”.

Until now, Africa’s most populous country had been leaderless for almost 80 days, since President Umaru Yar’Adua abruptly left for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He failed formally to transfer power to Mr Jonathan before his departure, leaving Nigeria in a state of limbo. The president’s inner circle and cabinet repeatedly put off filling the vacuum, knowing that a change at the top could threaten their privileged positions. Investors and oil people grew querulous.

However, amid growing calls for action, Nigeria’s parliament has at last passed a resolution that transfers full power to Mr Jonathan until the president returns to work. The resolution used Mr Yar’Adua’s faltering BBC telephone interview last month as the official “sick note” to parliament that the constitution requires for a handover.

Mr Jonathan could now be in the top job until elections scheduled for next year. Although he has been the de facto leader since Mr Yar’Adua’s departure, he has been largely passive. Some attribute this silence to spinelessness, others to tactical guile. “If he had overdone it earlier, people would have said he was power-grabbing,” says a businessman in Lagos, the commercial capital. “He has been clever.”

In his address on February 9th, Mr Jonathan unveiled his aims. In the Niger Delta region, his homeland, where militants have long campaigned for a greater share of their land’s oil revenues, he vowed to build on Mr Yar’Adua’s amnesty of last summer. Thousands of youths gave up their weapons in return for promises of stipends and training, but the leaderless government has been slow to make good on those pledges and the peace is fraying.

It is hard to predict how much the acting president will assert himself in the coming months. In many ways an unknown entity, Mr Jonathan has a history of assuming big roles by being in the right place at the right time. When the Bayelsa state governor was arrested on money-laundering charges in 2005, Mr Jonathan, then deputy governor, found himself at the helm. On February 10th, chairing his first cabinet meeting, he had the confidence to reshuffle some of the ministers known to be allies of Mr Yar’Adua. But there was no hint that he was about to sweep away the ancien régime.

Moreover, his accession is still dogged by controversy and uncertainty. The parliamentary resolution does not strictly adhere to Nigeria’s constitution, which states that a handover can only take place if the president writes a letter stating he is unable to serve or the cabinet sends a medical team to examine him. Neither has happened, and Mr Yar’Adua has said nothing. “The resolution is an illusion,” says Rotimi Akeredolu, president of the Nigerian Bar Association. “The legal issues will cloud how active Jonathan can be.”

Meanwhile, the race is on to be next year’s presidential candidate for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which rotates its leadership between the largely Muslim north and Christian south every two terms. Mr Yar’Adua, a northerner, had served only part of one term, and northern hopefuls are already laying claim to the second. Until then, unless he is bold, the southern Mr Jonathan may be allowed to do little more than keep the seat warm.

The Economist

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