President Goodluck Jonathan has been rightfully taken to task by Nigerians for his abysmal handling of the kidnapping of over 200 school girls in Chibok, Borno State by Boko Haram. Nigerians are used to failure from leadership, but this situation was unique in that for the first time, the world saw Nigerian leadership in all its pitiful glory. In turn, many have deduced that these public blunders will cost President Jonathan his core constituency. They’re wrong.
What many of President Jonathan’s critics fail to grasp is that despite his immense failure, he still has sizable support in Nigeria, particularly the “South-South” region of the country. Jonathan will get their vote. This isn’t only because he’s from the region, or because they love him immensely. In fact, they too are disappointed with him. However, Nigerians have been disappointed for over half a century. Nigerians are used to disappointment. Nigerians have been disappointed since the amalgamation of Nigeria by British colonialists. Disappointment and unpleasantness is part and parcel of Nigeria, so much so that things are weighed on a scale of what will be least unpleasant. Entire generations lived their formative years under kleptocratic military dictatorships. Nigeria has never seen true leadership after the civil war. Nigeria as a nation has been a project in maintaining the status quo of political power and wealth among the military, rogues and elites. Some individuals are all three. To make matters worse, Nigerians continue to look to the same actors and players for a new tomorrow.
North and south beyond Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo
To understand why Jonathan still has support, you first have to understand the Nigerian political and ethnic landscape beyond the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo. The individual ethnic groups in the South-South region of Nigeria might be small compared to groups like the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo, but collectively they are sizable. These small groups have felt ignored and slighted for years by what they perceive as dominance and monopolization in Nigerian politics by Northern Nigerian politicians. They think many Northern politicians have a “born to rule” mentality. Outside of that, they feel that national political discourse is centered on the Hausa/Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo populations. The feeling of abandonment many of the smaller groups have is very real. Going by history, their feelings aren’t unwarranted.
Since Nigeria’s independence as a republic with Nnamdi Azikiwe becoming the first president, followed by the brief rule of General Aguiyi-Ironsi after a coup, there hasn’t been a southern President until Goodluck Jonathan. That’s almost half a century. People often include Obasanjo as a southern President because he isn’t a northerner, but those in the south do not view him as a southerner. The people who call him a southerner are usually not from the “South-South”, so they don’t understand the geopolitics of the area. An Ikwerre, Ogoni, Ibibio or Ijaw person isn’t looking at a Yoruba man from Western Nigeria as their kin. Even if they did, it certainly wouldn’t be Obasanjo. There is a huge disconnect with Obasanjo and many in the South-South, the surrounding South East and Igboland. They think his loyalty lies with northern elites. Many elders haven’t forgotten (or forgiven) his role in the Biafra conflict, or him being the right hand man to Murtala Mohammed who orchestrated anti-Igbo pogroms and later on, the Asaba Massacre.
For this reason, many southern elders view Obasanjo as a war criminal. Obasanjo himself led several invasions that claimed the innocent lives of thousands in then Biafra (now Southeast Nigeria), most notably the Invasion of Umahia and Operation Tail-Wind.
It’s our turn: The southern support of Jonathan
After the assassination of Murtala Mohammed, Obasanjo took over the military regime and appointed Shehu Musa Yar’Adua as his second in command. Like Obasanjo, Yar’Adua was a general who participated in the Nigerian Civil War. Some decades later when Obasanjo wrapped up his second round as a president under civilian rule, he supported the campaign of Umaru Yar’Adua as his successor, who was the younger brother of Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, his former right-hand man. This angered a lot of people in southern Nigeria, and made them wonder whether this was a case of cronyism. To help calm tensions, Yar’Adua appointed the then Governor of Bayelsa State, Goodluck Jonathan as his running mate. Jonathan was relatively unknown nationally. Yar’Adua won the election and became President.
Unfortunately, President Umar Yar’dua died in office and Goodluck Jonathan became the interim president on this technicality. He wouldn’t have been in office otherwise. Jonathan’s supporters, particularly those in the “South-South” felt like this was their only opportunity for representation and seized this moment to put everything behind his candidacy. They came out in big numbers to vote for him in 2011 when he ran his first presidential campaign. Northerners wouldn’t have voted for Goodluck Jonathan en masse and people in the Niger Delta and across Southern Nigeria know it. This is why they still support Jonathan despite his many public failings.
The rationale for southern support of Jonathan is that this is their turn to have one of their own at the helm, since an Ijaw man as President will probably never happen again. This is not to say they aren’t disappointed in Jonathan, they are. It’s just that they will still vote for him because they don’t think a President from a different region will tend to their issues. Hence Jonathan is seen by many as their only hope for some attention in their area, which he has given them. Past leadership has largely ignored Niger Delta issues; from Shagari to Buhari to Babangida to Abacha to Obasanjo to Yar’Adua. Jonathan is not doing a good job, but compared to past leadership, he hasn’t completely ignored them. As mentioned earlier, Nigerians are used to disappointment and their decisions are based on what they deem to be least unpleasant. For Southern Nigerians, that is Goodluck Jonathan.
Anger in the South-South
Nigeria is a nation with multiple smaller nations within it. People outside the South-South zone of the Niger Delta don’t fully understand how angry many in the region are; especially after decades of Northern leadership dictating what happens on their land. They feel like nothing much has been done for them as they watched all their riches and mineral wealth get pilfered by outside leadership in complicity with western multinationals. Many in the South-South are mired in issues regarding the Niger Delta’s exploitation via gas and oil exploration. The region has been destroyed and their wealth and livelihood continues to evaporate. They do not trust northern politicians. It was Abacha’s regime in collusion with Shell that killed Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni Nine after all. The feeling of abandonment by leadership brought about the rise of the Niger Delta militants. At the 1:20 mark of this video, they mention that a hungry man is an angry man and then show the Niger Delta militants.
In addition, many southerners feel that Boko Haram is not their issue and that it is a Northern Nigerian issue. In the eyes of many southerners, northern Nigeria may as well be on the moon. It’s a completely different reality to their daily lives. I can only speculate that President Jonathan might feel this way on a subconscious level. I do not believe that if over 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped in Bayelsa State, that it would have taken him weeks to even address it. He would have been on the situation immediately.
Speculation aside, Goodluck Jonathan is not the president of the Niger Delta. He is the president of Nigeria. Jonathan needs to eradicate Boko Haram for the sake of national security and human lives. Boko Haram’s death toll continues to rise and millions have been displaced. There is a refugee crisis. Goodluck Jonathan has failed Nigeria in this regard.
Jonathan’s only real adversary: Muhammadu Buhari
I want a better Nigeria, and I don’t think Jonathan is the candidate for the job, but neither are his main adversaries, namely Muhammadu Buhari and Atiku Abubakar. We know who they are. They have track records.
Atiku isn’t a factor, but Buhari is. Buhari has a strong following that posits him as a beacon of light, fairness, honesty and integrity. This is pure revisionism. Apart from the fact that billions went “missing” when Buhari was the chairman of NNPC (Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation), his military regime was marred by human rights violations. Free press was curtailed, dissidents were publicly beaten and critics were tossed in prison without charges. His administration also fabricated charges to incarcerate his critics. We must not forget that it was Buhari who had Fela Kuti sentenced to ten years in prison on trumped up charges. Amnesty International had to get involved. Fela later wrote the song Beasts of No Nation, a scathing critique of leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, P.W. Botha, Mobutu Seso Seko and Buhari. Buhari was depicted on the album cover with bloody fangs and horns, as were the other leaders. “Animal dey wear agbada” indeed.
As a civilian, Buhari was appointed by Sani Abacha to be the Chairman of the Petroleum Trust Fund where, unsurprisingly, huge portions of resources and funds were allocated to the military government and was never seen again. This is the supposed upstanding man Buhari supporters claim he is, but his history and track record tell a different story.
It’s undeniable that Nigeria needs new leadership, but I’m perplexed by those who claim to want a “new Nigeria” while championing the likes of Buhari and Atiku. One is a septuagenarian, former military dictator and the other is a career politician who was a vice president for 8 years during Obasanjo’s second reign. Recycling leaders is not the recipe for change. You cannot keep appointing the same leaders and expect different outcomes. Until the Nigerian citizenry comes to terms with and fully accepts that the problem is the old guard, nothing will change. Nigerians are choosing a president between Goodluck Jonathan and Muhammadu Buhari, so the ultimate losers here are Nigerians. A choice between a septuagenarian former military dictator and an inept incumbent who can’t suppress insurgents within the country he’s leading is no choice at all.
The future of Nigeria lies in the hands of the youth, not the old guard. Until a sustained mass uprising happens, don’t expect much change. We saw Occupy Nigeria and the fuel subsidy protests, but that was quickly erased from the public’s consciousness. Like the great Sonny Okuson once asked, which way Nigeria?