Nigeria's Acting President Leaps Into Action

Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan i i

hide captionActing Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on Monday. The appearance came during the interim leader's first official visit outside Nigeria.

Jose Luis Magana/AP
Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan

Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan speaks at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., on Monday. The appearance came during the interim leader's first official visit outside Nigeria.

Jose Luis Magana/AP

Months of rough-and-tumble politics in Nigeria have left West Africa's regional powerhouse badly bruised.

President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua's prolonged absence abroad on sick leave, and his sudden return home after his vice president was named interim leader earlier this year, raised the political temperature and uncertainty. With the president too sick to govern, acting President Goodluck Jonathan has swung into action.

Last week, he swore in a new Cabinet. This week, he is Washington for the nuclear security summit — his first official visit outside Nigeria.

And Nigerians are wondering wistfully whether, under the acting president, Africa's most populous nation and the continent's top crude oil exporter can live up to its new slogan: "Good people, great nation."

'You Must Hit The Ground Running'

Along with the constitutional crisis prompted by Yar'Adua's long absence, there has been other political tumult in the past six months: renewed sectarian violence in the central city of Jos; and the fallout from the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian man charged with trying to blow up a U.S. passenger plane on Christmas Day.

Those are just some of the challenges facing Nigeria's new Cabinet. And after swearing in the ministers last week, Jonathan put his team on notice.

"You must hit the ground running," he said. "Time is of fundamental essence, and no distraction in our mission will be tolerated. This is a patriotic call to service and this rare privilege must not be abused."

Promise For Reform

Jonathan was handed temporary executive powers by the National Assembly in February — three months after Yar'Adua left Nigeria for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He has remained out of the public eye, suffering from chronic kidney ailments and a heart condition.

As vice president, Jonathan was in Yar'Adua's shadow, but once at the helm, he pledged to consolidate peace in Nigeria's turbulent oil region, while tackling corruption and halting communal killings and militant violence.

Jonathan also promised electoral reforms ahead of the next presidential election, scheduled for next year. The moves were welcomed by Washington, which is Nigeria's largest trade partner, importing a fifth of its crude oil supplies.

Electoral Dispute

However, the United States has gone public in calling for the removal of Nigeria's electoral chief, Maurice Iwu — a sentiment backed by thousands of demonstrators at a recent union-organized protest march in the capital, Abuja.

Observers, including Washington, believe Iwu oversaw what were arguably Nigeria's most fraudulent elections.

It was this disputed vote that brought Yar'Adua and Jonathan to power in 2007. But Jonathan is under pressure — at home and abroad — to clear the decks at the Independent National Electoral Commission.

Speaking through a megaphone at the demonstration last month, the Nigeria Labour Congress president, Abdulwahed Omar, delivered a warning: "One thing is clear, by the mandate of the Nigerian people, the day the government makes the mistake to reappoint Professor Maurice Iwu as INEC chairman, every worker in Nigeria will stop work until he is removed."

A Wide-Open Race?

With little more than a year left in the current presidential term, Nigeria's foreign partners — mindful of the country's long history of military dictatorship — want assurances of stability.

Since many Nigerians believe the ailing Yar'Adua, a northerner, will not seek re-election, the succession race for Nigeria's new leader is expected to be wide open.

But Jonathan, a southerner, is also unlikely to run next year, because of an unwritten agreement among the political elite that the presidency rotates between the north and south every two terms.

Whoever is in charge, most Nigerians say, the priorities remain the same: jobs, a reliable electricity supply and an end to constant power cuts.

Meanwhile, Bibiana Uke, on a busy street in Abuja, says she gives the acting president the thumbs up.

"My view on Goodluck Jonathan: I'm sure he's going to do great things for this country. I believe in him. And I like the actions he has taken already," she said. "He has dissolved the Cabinet and they've sworn in new ministers. I think he's doing well."

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