Nigeria's Accidental President Promises Reform

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Getty Images

Goodluck Ebele Jonathan—the acting president of Nigeria—needs an introduction. After a political drama that makes President Barack Obama's scuffles with centrist senators seem boring by comparison, Jonathan has emerged on top. Nigeria's elected president, Umar Yar'Adua, fell ill. Then he disappeared to Saudi Arabia for two months. Soon, his wife, Tarai Yar'Adua, began stage managing on her husband's behalf, refusing to relinquish power. Eventually, the Nigerian courts had enough—voting to give Jonathan one year (elections will be held in early 2011) of control over an unruly democracy of 150 million that is currently the third largest source of U.S. crude oil and petroleum.


"We must hit the ground running," Jonathan said when handed over the reins on Feb. 9. He defied early expectations of weakness by dissolving his predecessor's cabinet and appointing new ministers from the ruling People's Democratic Party at key agencies. But his legacy in Nigeria will hinge on his response to the new world order on energy.

Jonathan made his first trip to Washington this week as head of state for Obama's international nuclear security summit, where 47 countries made pledges to decrease the likelihood of loose nuclear material getting into the hands of terrorists. It's part of Obama's executive commitment to nuclear disarmament and a continuation of a treaty with Russia he signed in Prague last week.

A Key Strategic Partner in Africa

The nuclear summit is also one indication of Nigeria's strategic importance to the United States, which continues to grow in the 21st century. Of course, other than providing America with $26 billion worth of petroleum every year, Nigeria has the largest military in the African Union, is an active member of the United Nations, and has led peacekeeping missions on the continent and around the world. It chairs the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the West African regional economic bloc, and it is Africa's largest recipient of American private investment. And the December arrest of a Nigerian national with alleged connections to a terror networks in Yemen and the Arabian Peninsula made the nation's long-standing ethnic and religious conflicts, as well as security protocols, of keen interest to the United States.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underscored this heightened attention when she and Nigerian foreign minister Yayale Ahmed signed a framework establishing a binational commission to fight corruption and promote development in Nigeria. "We hope it will support the aspirations of the Nigerian people for a peaceful, prosperous, stable, democratic future," Clinton said when signing the accord. Jonathan's meeting with Obama at the White House was equally polite, both countries acknowledging the "importance" of the other. But one subject was conspicuously absent: oil.

In the End, It's About Oil

Nigeria has proven a more acceptable oil partner for the United States than countries like Iran, Angola, Venezuela, and others that, in Obama's words, "don't like us very much." But it is still a fragile democracy plagued by endemic poverty, whose oil reserves are keeping America from, again in Obama's words, the "clean energy economy" that can create jobs and slow climate change. It's also hindering Nigerian development. Oil makes up 95 percent of the country's export earnings and some 85 percent of government revenues—which means Nigeria lags behind even other developing countries in building human capital and other industries.


With health care reform signed into law, the U.S. government is now turning to the hot-button issue of legislation to address fossil-fuel emissions that cause catastrophic climate change. America's inefficient, car-centric culture will have great difficulty going green. But Obama's recent announcement that drilling will begin off America shores should give Nigeria pause. Under this new policy, and the terms of the bill already passed by the House of Representatives, and those being proposed by Sens. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, Nigeria's 50-year free lunch could soon be in jeopardy.

At the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, Jonathan admitted that oil is a problem: "One of the greatest challenges we have is the power sector," he said. "The law of nature is oil or nothing." Even though Nigeria produces 2.2 million barrels of oil daily, electricity is spotty throughout the country, and poor production controls often lead to spills or the burning of natural gas in periodic "flares" that are environmentally devastating for the Niger Delta region where most of Nigeria's oil reserves are concentrated. (They are also wasteful—the 24 billion cubic meters of gas burned off annually is enough to power most of the continent for a year.)


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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Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.