A file photograph from last month shows Nigerian All Progressive Congress (APC) presidential candidate Muhammadu Buhari, right, and incumbent Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) . (EPA Photo)

Jamil Maidan Flores — Goodbye Goodluck: Nigerian President Gains Respect in Defeat

APRIL 07, 2015

My Nigerian friend, Sonala Olumhense, is a syndicated columnist with strong views on his country’s politics. He once regaled me with stories about how his president, Goodluck Jonathan, was uncannily true to his name, how weak he was, and how profligate his inner circle.

Goodluck Jonathan came out of nowhere and rose meteorically to the presidency in a little more than a decade. He was an environmental protection officer when he was picked to run as deputy governor in tandem with Diepreye Alamieyeseigha in the election of 1999 in his native Bayelsa State. The two won that election and were reelected in 2003.

In late 2005, Alamieyeseigha was impeached on charges of money laundering and Jonathan suddenly found himself governor. Then in the presidential election of 2007, the People’s Democratic Party shopped around for a vice-presidential candidate who would give no problems to the president once elected. Jonathan was a perfect fit.

Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was elected president in 2007 with Jonathan as his vice-president. Three years into his presidency, Yar’Adua went abroad for urgent medical treatment. He died shortly after he came back home. As legal successor, Jonathan became acting president, then president by virtue of his phenomenal luck.

Jonathan was elected president in his own right in April 2011, that time defeating Muhammadu Buhari, in elections that many denounced as rigged.

As president, Jonathan failed to deal with the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, which devastated the country’s northeast while kidnapping 270 girls from a boarding school. His luck proved powerless against the country’s endemic corruption.

Sonala laughed ruefully as he told me all this.

Jonathan’s luck ran out as he campaigned for reelection in 2015, in a rematch with Muhammadu Buhari. At one point the polls showed him trailing by two to one. The PDP had been in power since 1999; the people wanted change.

Buhari, 72, stands for that change if only because he has a record of forcefulness and a reputation that he’s Mr. Clean.

As an active general, he once ruled Nigeria with an iron hand after deposing a civilian government in a 1983 coup. His human rights record was so disgraceful, his anti-corruption campaign so heavy-handed and his economic policies so disastrous that nobody shed a tear when he was ousted in another coup in 1985.

Since then, however, claiming that he had been “converted to democracy,” he has run in every presidential election. Thrice he lost. He conceded each time. The fourth time was different. The people were tired of the weak incumbent.

Was it wise for Nigerians to gamble on a former dictator over a weak leader?

Wrote Sonala in his column: “This election is not about Jonathan. It is not about Buhari. It is about Nigeria as a country that has too long been taken for granted.”

To Buhari, then already the probable winner, he admonished: “It would be the final tragedy should you act as if … the standard of measurement will be lowered because you had popular support. The support is for the country, not for you, not your party.”

When the vote count showed that Buhari had won, Jonathan’s followers were shrieking, “Fraud!” There was a real danger of bloodshed. In the previous election, when Buhari lost, the followers of both candidates went at each other, resulting in the death of 800.

Jonathan promptly put in a phone call to Buhari, conceded defeat and congratulated him. “No political ambition is worth shedding the blood of any Nigerian,” he later explained.

With that gesture he showed all Nigerians what the election was all about. And in defeat he finally won the respect that eluded him when he was merely lucky. I’m sure Sonala can spare a kind word for him now.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.