The Jonathan we didn’t know

Alexandra Gillies, a specialist on natural resource governance and transparency, aptly captured the mood of her Nigerians in her recent post.

Many argued against the growing talk of a potential win by Nigeria’s opposition party in the March 28 presidential polls. The conventional wisdom was that the president of an oil-rich country, especially one with weak institutions, enjoys too many advantages and too much influence to be unseated.

But Gillies said the win by opposition leader Muhammadu Buhari signals a major step forward for Nigerian democracy. It is the first time a Nigerian opposition party has won since military rule ended in 1999, and the elections were relatively peaceful.

Buhari’s win surprised many because Nigeria’s oil sector theoretically confers great advantages on the incumbent. Buhari was popular but the power of incumbency, which Jonathan wielded, was stronger.

For the five and a half years that President Goodluck Jonathan sat atop the world’s 12th largest oil industry, oil prices averaged over $100 per barrel, and he exercised high levels of discretion in how oil revenues were spent.

For instance, he influenced the amount of oil revenues used for funding special programmes for the Niger Delta region that cost $1.2 billion in 2013 alone.

She argued that the President also gets to allocate valuable upstream, import and export licenses, which can be used to reward friends or appease enemies. Minister of Petroleum Resources, Diezani Alison-Madueke steered many of these prized assets towards Nigerian companies, many of which relied on strong political connections to garner favour in discretionary selection processes.

The political elite also benefit from illicit flow of oil resources with over 500,000 barrels of oil stolen daily.

As suggested in a 2013 Chatham House report, much of that theft relies on official complicity, and therefore may have benefited powerful interests in the Niger Delta.

However, the election results suggest that these advantages were not enough to return Jonathan to power.

Rather, shortcomings in how Jonathan managed the country’s oil wealth led voters to turn toward his opponent. Broadly speaking, high poverty rates continued in spite of historic oil returns.

More specifically, three examples, she argues, illustrate the administration’s weak governance record. First, while Jonathan used oil money to increase security budgets from $3.2 billion in 2009 to $4.8 billion in both 2013 and 2014, the military has struggled in the fight against Boko Haram, and security was a hot electoral issue.

Second, a failure to accumulate savings during the years of high oil prices left Nigeria ill-prepared to manage the dramatic 2014 price crash. The economic decline led to major downgrades in Nigeria’s investment classification, and the dropping value of the naira left everyday Nigerians feeling the pinch.

Third, numerous scandals, controversies and critical reports suggested that Jonathan managed the oil sector in a sub-optimal manner that left room for corruption. The 2012 fuel subsidy scam saw Nigeria lose $6 billion; the 2012 Ribadu report pointed out other losses on a similar scale; and then Central Bank of Nigeria Governor, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, blew open a 2013 controversy over whether our national oil company, the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation illegally retained $20 billion in public funds. The government’s unkept promises to pass the Petroleum Industry Bill reinforced its reputation for opposing, or at least unable to effect a cleanup.

Nigerians will now find out if Buhari can manage the country’s oil wealth in a manner that engenders broad-based development.

Oil sector reform simply must be a priority for the victor. From restructuring NNPC to rethinking the problematic excess crude account, there are many ways to increase the benefits that Nigerian citizens receive from their oil wealth.

With lower prices encouraging fiscal discipline and a new leader in power, it seems a promising time for this agenda to advance.

Notwithstanding his various failings and shortcomings, however, Jonathan emerged from the presidential election a hero.

The outgoing president had, to the delight of many Nigerians, publicly conceded defeat and conveyed his “best wishes” to the president-elect even before the final results were collated and announced.

He had urged his supporters to follow “due process” in channeling their frustrations at losing the election amid fear of violence.

“Nobody’s ambition is worth the blood of any Nigerian,” he said in a statement issued after his election defeat. “The unity, stability and progress of our dear country is more important than anything else.”

This statement was the position he stated repeatedly during the electioneering campaign.

There had always been this fear that he might not want to concede, but he will remain a hero for this move.

Jonathan’s action signposts a victory for our democracy for which we must all be proud. This is because past elections have been blighted by vote-rigging and deadly clashes.

By his action, President Jonathan demonstrated that elections are not a matter of life or death. You win. You lose. Life continues.

Everyone had thought that the March 28 general election would result in a blowout, that corpses would litter the streets but President Jonathan coming forward showed leadership – solid leadership – at a critical moment.

He pulled a fast one on all of us. And emerged a hero.


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