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President Goodluck Jonathan raises his arms to greet supporters
Image: picture-alliance/AP

The sudden rise of Goodluck Jonathan

Jan-Philipp Scholz and Adrian Kriesch / sh
February 5, 2015

True to his name, Nigeria's president has enjoyed a lot of luck during his political career - but it could be about to run out. Many Nigerians feel he has failed to deliver, especially in the fight against Boko Haram.


Ebua Walter is enjoying the peaceful atmosphere in the village of Otuoke. The 65-year-old sits at the waterside, watching children at play as canoes glide past. But when he is asked for his opinion about Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the 65-year-old is suddenly full of energy. The president was a wonderful, well brought up young boy, Walter told DW, and he often used to see him going into the forest with his father to chop wood.

Jonathan was born into a poor family in Otuoke in 1957. His father built canoes and his mother took care of the children. Otuoke lies in the center of the Niger Delta, a region which has often been in the news - mainly with negative headlines - since oil was first discovered there in 1960. There were reports about leaky pipelines being responsible for the destruction of large areas of vegetation and robbing people of their livelihood, as well as brutal militia groups who kidnapped local residents and foreigners and demanded exorbitant ransoms for their release.

None of that is to be seen in Otuoke. On the contrary, it appears idyllic, a perfect example of successful development. The street lights are powered by solar energy, streets – even small sidestreets – are paved; everything looks clean and orderly. The fact that President Jonathan was born and grew up here has certainly not harmed Otuoke. But it is rarely the development projects that people here want to talk about. No matter whom one asks, the residents are all full of praise for their village's most famous son.

A group of people at the riverside in Otuoke
Life is peaceful in Jonathan's home village of OtuokeImage: DW/Kriesch/Scholz

From political nobody to president in record time

Nitabai Inengite-Esosi is one of Otuoke's traditional chiefs. He went to school with the president who still visits him regularly. Jonathan's friends and family are very important to him, says Inengite-Esosi, adding that no one would have thought that Jonathan would one day become president of Nigeria. He had been "much too modest and honest" for that. The young Jonathan displayed neither great ambition nor unusual talents – in fact, political observers who are less enthusiastic about him than the residents of Otuoke, speak of a "series of accidents" which brought Jonathan to his position as leader of the country.

After studying zoology Jonathan worked as an environmental advisor for the development commission in the Niger Delta, an authority whose brief was to give the oil-rich but poor region a boost through development projects.

Ebua Walter
Ebua Walter remembers Jonathan as a well brought up young manImage: DW/Kriesch/Scholz

Jonathan entered politics in the late 1990s. As a member of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), he was elected deputy governor of his home state Bayelsa.

It was above all Jonathan's reputation as a loyal party functionary that attracted the attention of President Olusegun Obasanjo whose protege he became. In 2007 Jonathan became vice president and some three years later, following the death in office of President Umaru Yar'adua, head of state. Within just a few years, political nobody Goodluck Jonathan had become the president of Africa's largest democracy.

Failure to meet his own goals

Five years on, even political observers close to Jonathan give him only average marks for his performance. When one looks at two of his main themes – ensuring a reliable power supply and fighting corruption – the country is today worse off than when he assumed the presidency. Today, only 40 percent of Nigerians have access to electricity. In the 2014 corruption rankings of Transparency International, Nigeria occupied position 136 out of 175.

Jonathan's own administration has been shaken by numerous corruption scandals. A parliamentary enquiry in 2012 revealed that, within just three years, state oil income of more than 5 billion euros ($5.7 billion) had been diverted into corrupt channels. Political analyst Nenghe James says this "self-service mentality" among the political elite has dramatically widened the gap between rich and poor in Nigeria under Jonathan's rule.

A large crowd of Nigerian refugees in Maiduguri
Boko Haram attacks have forced thousands of Nigerians to flee their homesImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Northern Nigerians unimpressed

One particular aspect of the general weakness which many political observers attribute to Jonathan could prove to be a stumbling block at the February 14 elections, his failure to stand up to Boko Haram. Attacks by the Islamist insurgents have cost thousands of lives, especially in the Muslim-dominated north of the country. Many northerners accuse Jonathan, a Christian from the south, of not taking their concerns seriously. They are still angry that the president has not visited the relatives of the almost 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in Chibok in April 2014. An attack on the town of Baga a few weeks ago, in which several hundred people are believed to have been killed, as well as other lethal raids by Boko Haram, have prompted many people to doubt the president's determination and ability to get to grips with the issue of security in the northeast. In a rare television interview, the president was asked by a reporter for Sahara TV what, in concrete terms his government was doing to counter Boko Haram. The government was "working hard" to tackle the problem was the laconic reply.

Nitabai Inengite-Esosi, the traditional ruler from Jonathan's home village of Otuoke, would vote for him again. However, his motives are primarily personal. Jonathan is a nice guy, the chief told DW. Asked whether he considers him to be a good politician, Inengite-Esosi's reply was somewhat evasive: Goodluck is actually a zoologist and has never studied politics.

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