Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Nigeria's accidental president turns to Facebook in campaign

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, expected to win in presidential elections scheduled for April 16, attends a campaign event in Abuja, the capital.

Erin Conway-Smith for The Globe and Mail/Erin Conway-Smith for The G lobe and Mail

A brass band blares a noisy flourish from a balcony, while young women parade in T-shirts proclaiming "Jonathan Is It" with a thumbs-up symbol. Speeches are made and the President tours an exhibit of photos showing him in a vast collection of fedoras and tasselled caps on the election trail.

Welcome to the unlikely campaign of Goodluck Jonathan, the accidental president of Nigeria. After decades of rule by military and ex-military men, the unassuming Mr. Jonathan is trying to pioneer a modern brand of democracy in Africa's most populous country, using U.S. election consultants and Facebook campaigns to entice Nigerians away from the top-down command politics of the past.

A few years ago, Mr. Jonathan was an obscure deputy governor, a zoologist by training, soft-spoken and wholly lacking in charisma. He unexpectedly became a state governor in 2005 when his predecessor was impeached for corruption. Two years later, he was plucked from obscurity to become Nigeria's vice-president, and then he was suddenly thrust into Nigeria's highest office last May after the death of the president, Umaru Yar'Adua.

Story continues below advertisement

Now, approaching his first national test in Saturday's presidential election, his campaign song promises he will be "a breath of fresh air" for Nigeria's cynical voters. His spin doctors are portraying him as a quiet revolutionary whose humble demeanour could transform Nigerian politics.

"We have a legacy of military-style presidents who are remote and aloof," says Ken Wiwa, the former Toronto-based writer and Globe and Mail columnist who has emerged as an influential adviser in the President's office.

"A lot of people are even afraid to go near the President. So he's trying to open it up, show that he's not an autocrat. We are trying to demystify the president. We shouldn't make governance some kind of cult. Most Nigerians have grown up with the culture of a militarized state, and we're trying to wean ourselves off those habits."

Mr. Wiwa knows firsthand the painful legacy of Nigeria's military history. His father, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was an environmental activist who was arrested and hanged in 1995 by the military regime of General Sani Abacha after he campaigned against the abuses of Nigeria's oil industry.

Mr. Wiwa avoided Nigerian politics until, to his surprise, he was wooed by former president Olusegun Obasanjo, who recruited him into the presidential office in 2006. Now he finds himself with a chance to reshape Nigerian democracy from the inside.

Goodluck Jonathan is far from an eloquent orator or magnetic leader, but Mr. Wiwa sees him as the modest mediator that this fractured society needs, just 12 years after the end of military dictatorship and just four years after the departure of the last ex-military president.

"Nigeria is a collective compromise, and you need a president that people are comfortable with," Mr. Wiwa said. "The ethnic tensions are not far below the surface. You need someone who will listen."

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Jonathan is burdened by the fading power of the ruling party, the People's Democratic Party, widely seen as a corrupt patronage machine. And he faces ethnic frictions, since - as a Christian from southern Nigeria - his very candidacy is a violation of the unwritten rule that the presidency should rotate between northern Muslims and southern Christians with equal terms of office for each. Yet polls suggest that he will win the election on Saturday, even if the PDP loses some of its support.

His campaign strategists believe Mr. Jonathan will appeal to ordinary voters because of his simple background as the son of a canoe-building family, a man with no aspirations beyond his zoology studies and his mid-level job in the civil service. He is not a military officer or a businessman with a mercenary interest in politics. "He's a very humble man who ended up in a position he never expected to be in," Mr. Wiwa says. "I've seen him grow and grow."

His rise to fame could inspire Nigerians to believe that anyone can do it, the strategists say. "It is personality, not party, that is driving these elections," says Oronto Douglas, one of the President's closest advisers and oldest friends. "In Nigerian politics, everyone goes for the head, but nobody has attacked Jonathan's personality, which is very unusual."

He recalled Mr. Jonathan's calm handling of the crisis triggered by Mr. Yar'Adua's prolonged illness and political disappearance in 2009 and 2010. "If it was another person, Nigeria would have gone up in flames."

But the campaign's obsessive emphasis on his quiet modesty is also an attempt to transform a weakness into a virtue. On the campaign trail, Mr. Jonathan is unimpressive. His speech at the photo exhibit was a few dull sentences and a failed attempt to joke about his hats. "He needs to work on his stage presence," Mr. Wiwa admits.

To bolster his personality, the campaign strategists have recruited lots of help. His slickly produced TV commercials have featured the most famous celebrities in Nigeria's Nollywood film industry, all singing the President's praises in the style of a movie trailer. "Coming soon to a polling booth near you," says the tagline at the end of the commercials.

Story continues below advertisement

His candidacy is getting further help from U.S. and British consultants, including Joe Trippi, the U.S. strategist who gained fame for his Internet-based campaign for former Vermont governor Howard Dean in 2004. When he announced his bid for the presidency this year, Mr. Jonathan made the announcement on Facebook, accompanied by millions of cellphone messages urging Nigerians to check his Facebook page. (With more than two million Facebook users, Nigeria is one of the most plugged-in nations in Africa.)

If the President's humble image has helped him with many voters, it is not enough for others. "Humility is fine, but is it humility or timidity?" asks Hussaini Abdu, director of the Nigerian branch of ActionAid, an international anti-poverty group.

"I think it's timidity. He is accommodating and tolerating corrupt politicians. The level of decay and impunity and indiscipline in Nigeria is so great that we don't need a passive leader."

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at