ABUJA, Nigeria — With his lopsided grin and penchant for political gaffes, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has provided ample fodder for critics who question whether he has the mettle to lead a government at war with a terrorist sect.
While Jonathan and his government are confronting the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, their more worrisome adversary may be a political opposition that has seized on the international uproar over nearly 300 kidnapped schoolgirls.
In an effort to sabotage his reelection prospects next year, opponents are painting Jonathan as indifferent to the terrorist threat and ill-prepared to lead this fractured democracy of 175 million.
In turn, Jonathan and his supporters have smeared some opposition leaders as secretly sponsoring Boko Haram and denounced others as capitalizing on the emotional pull of the saga of the missing girls for partisan gain.
The clock that both sides are really watching is not the five-weeks-and-counting since the abductions, but the 11 months until voters go to the polls.
“Ever since this Boko Haram crisis started, the government and the political class have tried to play politics with it. Everyone is looking for scapegoats instead of solutions,” said Mohammed Ali Ndume, a senator from the opposition All Progressives Congress who represents the terror-plagued Borno state in the north. “What we really need to be focusing on is the root causes of the problem — poverty, illiteracy and lack of employment.”
What is at stake in the mutual blame game is control of Africa’s most populous country, its largest economy and one of its most promising, if fragile, democracies. The country’s vast oil reserves have allowed the creation of a culture of official corruption while leaving millions in poverty. But the resources also have financed a gradually modernizing state.
Until the girls’ abduction thrust an Islamist insurgency into the international spotlight, Jonathan’s prospects for reelection next spring seemed relatively good. Although originally elevated to the post by chance in 2010, while he was serving as vice president and the president died, Jonathan easily won election in 2011, a contest widely described as the first truly fair national balloting since 33 years of military rule ended in 1999.
During his first two years in office, Jonathan championed a variety of reforms and development projects, from anti-corruption laws to rural electrification. Neither charismatic nor forceful, the former zoologist, 57, styled himself as a sympathetic “brother” to all Nigerians. His affable smile dominated roadside billboards, TV ads identified him and his People’s Democratic Party with national unity and progress, and his popularity remained high.
But as a Christian from the south, he was accused of neglecting the mainly Muslim north and its growing terrorist toll. Since April, his hapless response to the kidnappings and the government’s failure to articulate a coherent strategy against Boko Haram have given the All Progressives Congress — a year-old coalition of fractious political and interest groups — a unifying electoral target.
At first, the president attempted to ignore the abductions. Then, he canceled a trip to the village from which the girls were taken — and insensitively remarked that a presidential visit could not bring the girls back. A drumbeat of criticism intensified, with daily protests in the capital by women’s groups demanding more state action to rescue the missing girls.
On Thursday, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for the All Progressives Congress, excoriated the president’s party as being “without soul or conscience” and said that on its watch, “12,000 Nigerians have been bombed to smithereens by Boko Haram.” He accused the government of running “shameless” TV campaign ads that compare Jonathan to Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr., “even as Nigerians continue to die daily due to the president’s . . . ineptitude and cluelessness.”
Government spokesmen insist that the president, who rarely makes domestic public appearances, is fully engaged and in command. They accuse opponents of forcing him to cancel campaign rallies while pressing ahead with their own, financing a biased media campaign against him and using the terrorism threat as a partisan wedge at a time of desperately needed national unity.
In his May 17 speech at a conference on terrorism in Paris, Jonathan laid out an articulate case for taking on Boko Haram, calling it “a new frontier in the global war of terrorism against our civilization” and the kidnappings a “watershed” moment in this struggle that “should not go unanswered.” He also suggested that his administration’s progress in promoting economic growth and opportunity had goaded the terrorists to action. “Our success is their failure,” he declared.
But Jonathan’s administration continues to be its own worst enemy. There is little suggestion that Nigeria’s nascent democratic system is in danger. But the government appears to be conflicted over how to handle the terrorism threat amid signs of discontent in the army over a lack of funding and equipment, and insistence by northern Muslim leaders that negotiation, not force, is the only way to end the violence.
“The simple fact of the matter is that government has conceded the initiative to the Islamist extremist group. It seems completely bereft of ideas on what to do,” Kolawole Olaniyan, a legal adviser to Amnesty International and an expert on human rights in Africa, wrote in the national Nigerian newspaper Punch. The group estimates that in the past five months alone, some 2,000 Nigerians have died in political and sectarian violence.
The crisis also seems to have thrown the president’s party into turmoil. Party officials were to announce Jonathan’s formal reelection bid this month but have repeatedly postponed doing so. Nigerian media outlets reported this week that former president Olusegun Obasanjo, an influential leader who ruled Nigeria first as a military dictator and then as an elected civilian, has advised Jonathan not to run.
But far more important than one man’s faltering electoral prospects, political observers said, is the old regional divide that has been wrenched open by the Boko Haram crisis and the partisan finger-pointing that followed. A political modus vivendi between the poorer, Muslim-dominated north and the wealthier, Christian-majority south has broken down, exposing severe regional inequities and playing into the hands of the Islamist militants.
“By playing politics with a national security crisis, the government has galvanized all its opponents and risked turning Boko Haram into a religious issue,” said Mohammed Kaita, an opposition delegate in the national assembly. “The real problem is the failure of our leaders to address poverty and jobs and corruption. Boko Haram is not a religious or political issue,” he said. “It is madness and it is harming all of us.”