Nigeria’s Accidental President Promises Reform

Goodluck Jonathan takes on entrenched powers in a bid to break his nation's addiction to oil revenues.

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Getty Images

Jonathan appears uncertain about just how to wean Nigeria off oil, but seems willing to take up the challenge. In addition to announcing plans to improve public safety and fight the “culture of impunity” that incites corruption, Jonathan announced that he will keep the electricity problem as part of his personal portfolio as acting president. “We are really reexamining it,” he said. “We want to change the focus.” He mentioned nuclear energy and the tapping of coal reserves as a long-term aspiration–though neither source of energy appeals to environmentalists. In a move that impressed skeptics, Jonathan has also decided not to appoint a minister for energy, who traditionally consolidated power without making reforms. “He is trying to leapfrog the bureaucracy,” says David Goldwyn, who chairs the state department commission with Nigeria on energy and investment. “It’s not a permanent solution, but it’s an important one.”

The State Department working group will also be essential to setting national prices on oil and a reliable baseline for electricity use in Nigeria–both of which are still constantly in flux. Models for this kind of U.S. partnership include Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan–all of which have benefited from America’s comparative expertise in energy use. Still, Jonathan’s federal commitment is “essential,” says Goldwyn. “They control allocation of gas to producers, transmission lines and the tariffs … all the primary policy tools which are necessary to reduce flaring and use oil efficiently.”

Time to Walk the Talk

Princeton Lymon, a former ambassador to Nigeria who has cautioned that the country might become “irrelevant” if it continues to rely on oil for political power, saw a gap between rhetoric and reality. “The shift away from a heavily dependent oil economy takes a lot of steps. It means investing back in the infrastructure and the agriculture sector, it means providing reliable power so other industries can develop. It involves watching the expenditures from the oil revenue,” he said. “I don’t think [Jonathan] has the time to do it, but if he even begins to solve the power problem, that would be a step forward.”

The December 2009 United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen was notable for the strong voices of the developing economies who don’t wish to see droughts, floods and other environmental disasters in their time. Nigeria, as recent head of the African Union, participated vocally. But 50 years of entrenched oil interests–including many U.S. companies–will not easily give up their profits. What’s more, senior Nigerian officials traveling with Jonathan, who were not authorized to speak on the record about the matter, appeared confident that American legislation that would slash U.S. consumption of oil won’t pass Congress before Jonathan is replaced.

In Obama’s declaration of the 40th annual Earth Day on April 22, he made no mention of the climate legislation working its way through Congress. Nevertheless, the quiet biologist from Nigeria has resolved to make change. “You will see a clear road map,” Jonathan said. “If we are moving, you will know. If we are not moving, well–you will know.”

Dayo Olopade is Washington reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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