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Boko Haram exploits Nigeria’s leadership deficit

President Goodluck Jonathan's apathetic response to the abduction of Chibok schoolgirls may cost him re-election

May 14, 2014 12:45AM ET

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is seeking a second term in 2015. A month ago, his prospects looked good, despite a first term marked by policy miscues, a plodding style, an uninspiring personality and an inability — or sheer reluctance — to take on corruption, Nigeria’s chief malady.

On April 14, Boko Haram, a Nigerian Islamist group that rejects the country’s alleged Western orientation in education and values, launched one of the gravest challenges yet in its increasingly bloody push to make Africa’s most populous nation an Islamic state. In one gruesome episode, the insurgents set off car bombs in Nyanya, a crowded transport hub in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. Officials put the death toll at 75; eyewitnesses said at least 200 people were killed.

The next day, Boko Haram staged an audacious midnight abduction of more than 200 high school girls from their dormitories in Chibok, an otherwise quiescent community in Nigeria’s northeastern state of Borno, the group’s bloodiest staging post.

Jonathan’s deplorable handling of the abduction crisis will undoubtedly define his presidency — and may imperil his bid for re-election. For two weeks, he did not do anything about the bloodletting and abductions. Instead, he held a campaign-style event in Kano, where he mocked his political opponents. That outing suggested an alienated leader who was not aware of the deep anxiety that has gripped his country.

Trading insults with his political rivals hours after terrorists slaughtered scores of innocent Nigerians was insensitive enough. Failing to respond to the abduction of schoolgirls compounded the portrait of a coldly indifferent president.

Poor leadership

Jonathan’s apathy couldn’t come at a worse time. Riveted by the dreadful abductions of teenage girls, the international media turned their spotlight on Nigeria. Two weeks after the kidnappings, he had not addressed the country. Officials gave conflicting answers about the number of abducted students. His security aides and military commanders even misled the public by claiming the girls had been rescued. The lack of a clear strategy for tracking the abductors was stunning. The president’s tardy attempt to set up a committee to deal with the rescue effort was too little, too late.

When he finally commented on the ongoing crisis, after local and international uproar, Jonathan’s assurances about finding and rescuing the abducted children was tepid and unconvincing. Meanwhile, his sympathizers speculated on social media that his opponents manufactured the abduction crisis to depict him as ineffectual and hurt his re-election chances. On Monday in a new video obtained by Agence France-Presse, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed the abducted girls had been “liberated” — converted to Islam — and would be released only if Nigeria freed the group’s imprisoned members. In the communications war, if not in reality, Shekau clearly had the upper hand.

The abduction saga has exposed the chronic inability of Nigeria’s politicians to govern competently — a sin for which Jonathan isn’t solely to blame.

Jonathan has had a mediocre run as president, but perhaps it was to be expected. He is hardly an exception in this regard. With few exceptions, Nigeria has been unfortunate in the area of leadership. As with many of his predecessors, he had little or no preparation to occupy the highest office in the country. He had not articulated a vision to pursue as president. After a few years of holding teaching posts at the University of Port Harcourt in Rivers state, he was appointed as a governor in December 2005 after the impeachment of the then-governor, DSP Alamieyeseigha. In 2006 the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) picked him as a vice presidential candidate on a ticket with Umaru Yar’Adua, former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s successor. Yar’Adua’s untimely death in 2010 catapulted Jonathan to the presidency.

Despite his ill preparation, there were personal and historical reasons that could have compelled Jonathan to rise beyond his limitations and leave a positive mark on Nigeria’s troubled political landscape. During the 2011 presidential campaign, he made much capital out of his deep childhood poverty, often stating that his parents could not afford to buy him shoes. For a nation where 70 percent of the population lives in dire poverty, his antecedents inspired hopes that, as president, he would become a passionate advocate for the poor, attuning his policies to alleviate the plight of the country’s most wretched. More important, he comes from the country’s oil-rich but economically depressed Niger Delta. Many dared to hope that he would embark on much-needed infrastructural development in his natal region and the rest of Nigeria.

The president’s supporters insist that his mediocrity owes less to inherent poverty of vision than the design of his implacable political foes, sworn to derail him. They allege that he has been hampered by his enemies’ inciting violence, especially in the northeast. They allege that northern politicians — aggrieved that Jonathan, who is a Christian and a southerner, has usurped their turn at the presidency — are sponsoring much of the terrorist attacks. Jonathan may well be a victim of northern political forces determined to frustrate him. But he has not displayed any ingenuity in devising a counteroffensive. Despite the considerable power that resides in the Nigerian presidency, he has not been able to defeat or neutralize his political opponents.

In Nigeria elections are decided by access to cash, by the ability to rig the vote and by control of the state machinery — the military, police and secret agents. The president holds clear advantages in those areas. Perhaps Jonathan’s greatest advantage is the weakness of the main opposition party, the All Progressives Alliance (APC). The party has been content to attack the incumbent without offering any substantive policy alternatives. What’s more, many of the APC’s prominent members are former top PDP officials who left the party after losing out in power tussles. For many Nigerians, the PDP and the APC are ideologically indistinguishable. In fact, many Nigerians would argue that the APC is, in fact, only a disenchanted faction of the PDP.

Jonathan may have undermined his electoral prospects by allowing Boko Haram to prove that he has few ideas for combating the scourge of violence ravaging the country. But more important, the episode has exposed the chronic inability of Nigeria’s politicians to govern competently — a sin for which Jonathan isn’t solely to blame.

Okey Ndibe is the author, most recently, of the novel “Foreign Gods Inc.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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