Lionel Healing/AFP/Getty Images

Goodluck charms

Nigeria | Acting president of Nigeria Goodluck Jonathan displays humility where power rules

Issue: "Fighting poverty," March 13, 2010

On a continent famous for its relaxed approach to punctuality, Goodluck Jonathan did something decidedly un-African in his first cabinet meeting as acting president of Nigeria: When a handful of government officials arrived late, Jonathan locked them out.

Days earlier, Jonathan surprised other Nigerian lawmakers by declining lengthy congratulatory visits. He surprised the country by discouraging the common practice of expensive news­paper ads hailing his ascent to power.

For Jonathan, the moves seem more practical than power-driven. Since Parliament named Vice President Jonathan acting president on Feb. 9 in the ailing president's absence, the new leader of Africa's most-populous nation has made his intentions clear: He wants to work.

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Even as President Umaru Yar'Adua unexpectedly returned to Nigeria on Feb. 24 after a three-month stay in a Saudi Arabian hospital, plenty of work loomed for Jonathan: Though officials said Yar'Adua was improving, he was met at the airport by an ambulance and hasn't made a public appearance in three months. Little is known about his condition, and it's unclear when or if he can return to office.

In the meantime, Jonathan's low-key demeanor suggests he wants to work without fanfare: At a summit meeting with West African leaders, Jonathan, from Nigeria's South and an "Anglican in good standing," according to Archbishop Peter Akinola (see p. 56), quietly told the group he was a "stand-in for President Yar'Adua, who is unavailable." Hassan Tukur, secretary of Nigeria's National Energy Council, told The New York Times: "His humility is unknown in this part of the world."

Indeed, much is unknown as Jonathan gains prominence: Can he bring stability to a nation wracked by corruption, religious conflict, and poverty? Can a leader who seems content with being least become great? The questions suggest the challenges Jonathan faces as part of his unexpected rise in an unpredictable part of the world.

Jonathan's rise began when Yar'Adua left Nigeria last November bound for a Saudi Arabian hospital for treatment for a serious heart condition. Yar'Adua's absence left a gaping vacuum at a critical moment: A peace deal with militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta region in the South began to unravel without a president to implement it. A Nigerian terrorist trying unsuccessfully to blow up an American airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day blew a disastrous hole in Nigeria's relations with the United States. And as U.S. officials added Nigeria to its terror watch list, the country gave limited response lacking its head of state.

Afraid of seeing the country slide into more chaos, Nigeria's Parliament looked increasingly to the vice president: Last month its members formally gave Jonathan the powers of the presidency. It was a controversial move, with some questioning the constitutionality of transferring power without the president's consent. But as the president remained silent, calls for Jonathan's takeover grew. He took power without civil or military unrest-a significant step in a country ruled by brutal military might just 10 years ago.

Jonathan, 52, didn't always seem destined for power, though his father deemed him special from birth: Pa Ebele Jonathan, a rural canoe-maker from the southern Ijaw tribe, says he named his son "Goodluck" because he thought he "had an element of fortune."

An element of hard work led Jonathan to study zoology in college. He pursued jobs in education and environmental protection before entering politics in 1998. After winning election as deputy governor in his home state of Bayelsa in 1999, Jonathan's political standing rose more quickly than expected: When officials impeached his boss on corruption charges, Jonathan became governor.

Two years later, former President Olusegun Obasanjo tapped Jonathan to successfully run for the nation's vice presidency. He won on the ticket with President Yar'Adua, though European election observers said the results were marred by fraud.

As acting president, Jonathan faces enormous challenges: Militants in the oil-rich South demand a greater share of the country's wealth and threaten violence if demands aren't met. Though Nigeria is one of the world's largest exporters of oil, most of the country remains plunged in abject poverty, seeing little benefit from the nation's lucrative oil industry. Experts say they're hopeful Jonathan can broker peace with militants before unrest spreads for one primary reason: The leader is from the region.

If Jonathan can succeed, he'll still face an uphill battle against government corruption that has bottled up wealth and limited basic services to a groaning population. The leader demonstrated an opening shot at corruption with the demotion of the nation's attorney general-a leader opposed to Jonathan and accused of ignoring human-rights abuses still rampant in the country. But with a police force and military still plagued by accusations of abuse, cleaning up corruption remains a daunting task.


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