Opinion: Nigeria's next president


BOSTON — Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, needs a new president who can convert the country's vast oil riches into broad-based prosperity and better social outcomes, seriously curb debilitating levels of corruption and end ethnic violence.

That's a tall order for Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria's accidental sitting president, who was vice-president and came to power when previous president Umaru Yar'adua died in May. Somewhat surprisingly, Jonathan has begun to show progress on each of those issues. But his very successes, especially his firm moves against rampant corruption, have angered the nation’s many power-brokers and have brought into question how long Jonathan will be able to stay in power. Nigeria’s fractured political compromise between north and south may also help to derail Jonathan's inclination to contest January’s election.

Jonathan’s desire to run for a full four-year term is bitterly opposed by well-heeled former leaders. Former president and general Ibrahim Babangida and former vice-president Atiku Abubakar have declared their candidacy. Muhammad Buhari, another one-time military ruler, also wants to run. All are wealthy Muslim northerners representing Nigeria’s troubled past.

Jonathan is a Christian from the south. He was governor of one of the violence-ridden, oil-producing Niger Delta states. Traditionally, Nigeria’s presidency rotates between northerners and southerners.

Jonathan needs much more time to reform Nigeria. He has begun to organize mechanisms to end electoral fraud so that January’s poll could be the giant country’s first fully free and fair ballot since the 1960s. A new biometric and fingerprint voters' register is being prepared, but its completion is a major undertaking. He has also appointed new, supposedly honest, officials to oversee the elections themselves. In 2007, ballot boxes were stolen, fake names appeared on the rolls, and huge sums were spent to campaign and to bribe rivals at all levels.

Jonathan also needs a further term of office to revamp his sprawling nation’s unreliable electrical power supply and to revive Nigeria’s ability (with Chinese help) to refine its own petroleum into gasoline and diesel. Having woefully neglected investments in these areas, Nigeria relies on its neighbors and other imports for both sources of energy.

Only Jonathan can bring peace to the Niger Delta by extending an amnesty and making rehabilitation of rebels a serious priority. The insurgency in the delta feeds off income and social iniquities, and a long history of marginalization and political exclusion by a succession of northern-dominated national governments. Jonathan, a kinsman, can make real the policy shifts that are necessary.

Jonathan is not suspected, as were most of his predecessors, of being corrupt. That means that his appointments to the national anti-corruption commission are genuine and that prosecutions of high-level miscreants are going forward with the president’s approval and encouragement.

All of these advances should be welcomed by the more than 150 million Nigerians who complain almost daily about inefficiencies, shortages of power, graft, and criminal attacks. Because Nigeria is the eighth largest exporter of oil to the United States, Washington also supports what Jonathan has been doing.

What is needed for a smooth transition in January is for Jonathan, a cautious man, to declare his candidacy despite northern claims and opposition. It is time he did. It is time he started to chart for all Nigerians what is at stake, and precisely how his candidacy for president could transform their beleaguered lives.

In order for Nigerians to regain confidence in their battered politics and politicians, Jonathan needs to pick a northern vice president and then to campaign hard along with a slate of similarly reform-minded candidates for the 36 state governorships and the hundreds of seats in parliament.

If he wins the election in January, Jonathan, as a fully legitimate president, could revive Nigeria and begin knitting its 250 ethnic groups into a national whole. But, to do so, he needs to campaign boldly and fully rather than arranging his candidacy so as not to offend northerners who demand their turn.

Robert Rotberg was director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict, Harvard Kennedy School and president of the World Peace Foundation until mid-2010.