Africa, Media, Politics

Goodluck Jonathan, Africa’s first socially-networked president

By Sipho Hlongwane 17 September 2010

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan's life is turning into an extraordinary adventure. Not only did he come to power in Nigeria without directly winning an election in 11 years and somehow managing to avoid the stench of corruption, but he has now turned to Facebook as his electoral platform. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

As in every other country where extremely powerful and incendiary groups vie for control, Nigeria’s presidential elections are a delicate affair. The battles between the country’s Muslim north and Christian south were settled somewhat by the unwritten rule of the People’s Democratic Party, which has been in power since 1999, of rotating presidency between candidates from the Muslim north and Christian south. Olusegun Obasanjo, a Christian southerner, was succeeded in 2007 by Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim northerner, which was the first peaceful civilian-to-civilian in Nigeria’s history. Yar’Adua chose as his running mate for the PDP presidential ticket the little-known Goodluck Jonathan, who at that stage was the governor of the Bayelsa state, located in the very heart of the Delta region.

Jonathan was considered one of the cleanest politicians in the country, with only the small matter of his wife being indicted in September 2006 by the economic and financial crimes commission for money laundering activities to the tune of $16 million hanging over his head.

The vice president of Nigeria was suddenly thrust into the limelight when President Yar’Adua took ill in November 2009 and taken to hospital in Saudi Arabia. This created a problem back home, as the President hadn’t fulfilled his constitutional duty of assigning someone to assume his duties. The courts eventually gave Jonathan the power to assume state affairs three weeks after Yar’Adua left the country, a move which drew the ire of opposition lawyers and politicians, who called it a “coup without the word”. Yar’Adua passed away on 5 May 2010, and the next day Jonathan was sworn in as president until the 2011 elections.

Interestingly, Jonathan was elected as deputy governor of Bayelsa, and came very suddenly into state power when Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, the then governor of Bayelsa was impeached by the Bayelsa state assembly after being charged with embezzlement in the UK. The January elections will be the first time that Jonathan is directly elected (assuming he wins, obviously) into a position in the last 11 years.

Jonathan has in this brief time made his presence felt, most memorably by imposing a two-year international competition ban on the Nigerian football team after they were dumped out of the 2010 World Cup in the group stages. The President withdrew his ban after Fifa threatened to expel Nigeria from the association. Jonathan subsequently said his change of heart was influenced by comments posted on his Facebook page, but more on that later.

With the date of the primaries looming (from 18 to 20 October), there had been speculation that Jonathan should not contest the PDP ticket, as it was the Muslims’ turn to rule the country. Critics fear that if Jonathan should win the elections, it would fuel discontent (which often leads to violence) among the country’s Muslim population. And for a long time, Jonathan didn’t let on as to what his plans were.

Then came the announcement on his Facebook page, of all places, that he would indeed be contesting the elections. “Today, I confirm that after wide and thorough consultations spanning the six geo-political zones that make up Nigeria, with members of my family, my party, the opposition, civil society, the Private Sector, members of the Labour Unions, religious leaders, youths and student groups and our revered traditional institutions, I Goodluck Ebele Jonathan by the grace of God hereby offer myself and my services to the Nigerian people as a candidate for the office of President in the forth coming 2011 elections. In presenting myself for service, I make no pretense(sic) that I have a magic wand that will solve all of Nigeria’s problems or that I am the most intelligent Nigerian.”

Jonathan will be competing against other well-known leaders for the PDP presidential candidacy, including former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida, who is from the Muslim north. Should he win the primaries, he may then contest elections against former vice president and general Atiku Abubakar, another Muslim northerner, who switched from the PDP to the Action Congress Party.

Many have raised eyebrows at Jonathan’s decision to use Facebook as a launching platform for his candidacy, as Internet penetration in the country is extremely low. In a country of more than 154 million people, there were only 23,982,200 Internet users in Nigeria as at the end of 2009. Of those, only 979,360 were on Facebook. It does seem as if Jonathan is literally barking up the wrong tree, especially if you consider the he only has 215,484 (and counting) fans on his Facebook page. However, if you consider that Internet penetration grew by 11,891% from 2000 to 2009 in Nigeria and that most Nigerians on Facebook are between the ages of 13 and 25, then you realise that Jonathan may be on to a very good thing here. We can safely assume that Jonathan’s announcement on Facebook is the first election bid announced on a social media platform in Africa.

The potential audience is too small for Jonathan to launch a social media election campaign as grand as Barack Obama’s, but we wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he dedicated a significant portion of his campaign strategy to social media. It would make him a trailblazer in African politics, and perhaps way ahead of his time. It would also ingratiate him with Nigeria’s young people who use the Internet, which could prove very useful in the future.

While this strategy may open him to accusations of elitism from the opposition, Jonathan has embraced Facebook (Twitter, not as much) and even credited the comments he received on Facebook for his decision to unban the Nigerian football team from competing internationally. Whether or not this will give him an edge in next year’s elections has yet to be seen, but his embrace of social media for politicking is certainly ground-breaking on the continent. DM

Read more: BBC, Time, al-Jazeera, AFP, CNN, CP Africa, the Infinity Research blog, Goodluck Jonathan’s Facebook page and his Twitter account.



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