By Anthony Akinola (Opinion)
The defeat of incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan, and the peaceful transfer of power following the 2015 presidential election in Nigeria, is noteworthy in the context of African democratic politics. Quite a number of African political leaders are known to have refused to be defeated in supposedly democratic elections. Some have changed the provisions of their nations’ constitutions in order to ensure their continued rule. Consequently, Africa has more or less become home to despots, who have been in power for upwards of 20 years.
However, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan was the first democratically-elected leader to have been defeated in a relatively free and fair election. This epochal achievement in Nigerian politics can be explained by three factors: ethno-religious competition for power, a purposeful coalition of hitherto disjointed political parties, and Jonathan’s unsteady performance as political leader. Each of these factors will be explained in sequence.
Goodluck Jonathan became president on May 5, 2010 following the death, in office, of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. He had been deputy to the latter since they both won the presidential election of 2007. He won on his own merit in 2011.
However, another election was due in 2015 and Goodluck Jonathan was again in a dilemma. Constitutional questions were raised about his eligibility to contest the election, considering the fact that he would have exceeded eight years in office by 2019 if he were successfully re-elected. The Nigerian constitution stipulates a maximum of two terms of four years each; however, the constitution would appear not to have anticipated or provided for a situation whereby a president (as it was in the case of Jonathan) had succeeded one who was unable to complete his or her tenure. Given the vehement disagreements by key northern politicians to Jonathan’s candidacy in 2011, it was apparent that his anxiety to contest the 2015 election was, to them, a case of Jonathan pushing his luck. Ex-militants in his regional base threatened violence if he was not re-elected, while so-called Transformation Ambassadors of Nigeria (TAN) demonstrated in major cities of the federation in favour of his candidacy.
Jonathan was not forthcoming about his intentions, preferring to keep the rest of society guessing. His decision to seek re-election was preceded by a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he went to “seek the face of God”. Jonathan eventually emerged as the sole presidential candidate of the PDP, but this was treated as no more than a joke by key northern politicians and their numerous supporters, who deserted him and the party in the 2015 presidential election.
The political fortunes of Jonathan were not helped by the amalgamation of hitherto disjointed political parties. His People’s Democratic Party had been in power since the inception of a new democratic era in 1999, competing in successive presidential elections, albeit amidst allegations of electoral manipulations and against a motley group of political parties whose support bases were at best regional.
However, it dawned on the leadership of these self-styled progressive opposition parties that winning the presidency demanded broad support across the nation’s various divides, making the merger of their forces politically wise and desirable. It was this political realisation that caused the formation of the All Progressives Congress (APC) as a major political party on July 31, 2013. The architects of this development were General Muhammadu Buhari, current President of Nigeria, and Senator Ahmed Bola Tinubu, erstwhile leader of the Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN). Buhari, a northerner, had unsuccessfully competed for the presidency on two previous occasions, 2003 and 2007, and it was clear that he needed support from the south in anticipation of the 2011 presidential elections. The Congress for Progressive Change (CPC), which he had hastily formed in 2010, revolved around him and was limited to the north. He sought an alliance with the ACN, a political party with strong support from the south-west region, populated mainly by the Yoruba, and this was the origin of the APC, currently the ruling party in Nigeria.
The emergence of the APC coincided with a seemingly irreconcilable crisis in the rank and file of the ruling PDP, with the former enthusiastically picking up the pieces falling from the latter’s shelves. Three factors account for this crisis. One, a frosty relationship between President Goodluck Jonathan and Governor Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers State; two, an allegation of arbitrariness on the part of PDP chairman, Alhaji Bamanga Tukur; and three, the perceived ambition of Jonathan to seek re-election in 2015 in contradiction of a supposed agreement that he would not be doing so. Five elected governors on the platform of the PDP, as well as key politicians and legislators, soon defected to the APC. In a nation where political party support tends to revolve mainly around personalities rather than ideologies, there was hardly any doubt that the PDP was doomed for the 2015 elections. States which hitherto were PDP-dominated voted massively for the APC presidential candidate, Muhammadu Buhari.
Jonathan enjoyed almost nationwide support in the 2011 presidential election; that support shrank considerably in 2015. His support was more or less limited to those regions of the south where he had primordial affiliation – the south-south and south-east. He was not supported in the south-west, not least because of disenchantment with his leadership.
If the crumbling of the PDP was a major factor in the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan, his lacklustre performance as president did not help to assuage the feelings of the undecided. Allegations of serious official corruption, and an inability to contain the Boko Haram insurgency in the north-eastern region, merely reinforced the determination of those who might already have harboured strong feelings against his aspiration to continue as an elected political leader.
With a flurry of allegations and the indictment of Goodluck Jonathan, the kidnap of 276 female students (Chibok girls) could not have come at a worse time. The girls were kidnapped from their hostels by the Boko Haram insurgents on the night of April 14-15, 2014. For weeks, neither the President nor his wife believed the kidnap was real. The EFCC is, at the time of writing, probing the office of the National Security Officer (NSO) in the administration of Goodluck Jonathan; ongoing revelations that funds meant for the fight against the Boko Haram insurgency were diverted for electioneering purposes, as well as embezzled by top military chiefs, are baffling to say the least.
Be that as it may, it should be of interest that intensification of the campaign against the Boko Haram insurgency only took place when it became apparent that Goodluck Jonathan was losing political ground to his only credible rival in the 2015 election, General Muhammadu Buhari, who enjoyed an unqualified perception as a man of personal discipline and integrity – a man who had a history of intolerance for corruption.
The 2015 presidential election, originally scheduled for February14, was postponed by six weeks to March 28, “mainly due to the poor distribution of Permanent Voter Cards, and also to curb ongoing Boko Haram insurgency in certain north-eastern states”. The military, it must be admitted, made outstanding achievements during those weeks, recapturing territories from the control of the insurgents. Goodluck Jonathan was able to visit the north-east for the first time since his election in 2011. However, rather than help his cause, the whole scenario portrayed Jonathan as merely pursuing a selfish agenda and it was not surprising that missiles were hurled at his convoy while he was campaigning in some cities in the north.
Also, during the six weeks’ postponement, Goodluck Jonathan made very frequent visits to the south-west region, considered as the main “battleground” for the 2015 elections. There were allegations that suitcases full of assorted currencies were taken to the homes of influential traditional rulers and politicians, as well as religious leaders. Fearing possible anger from his domain, one traditional ruler was reported to have admonished members of his community, through a town crier, that he was not one of those who took money from Jonathan!
In the end, Goodluck Jonathan did not win in the south-west; the era of “the voice of the palace is the voice of the people” may have ended for good.
In conclusion, it can be said that the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan was predictable and merited. However, he left a legacy of relative honour and integrity by accepting his defeat and congratulating his victorious opponent, even before the counting of votes was concluded. That, in my view, was an example for the despots of Africa and one legacy that must continue to guide the future of democracy in Nigeria itself.