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Is Goodluck Jonathan's luck running out?

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan is facing a double challenge with a series of sectarian attacks by the Boko Haram Islamist group and deadly protests over a fuel subsidy removal.


When he took over the presidency of Africa’s most populous nation in 2010, Goodluck Jonathan seemed destined to live up to his name. But that was until recently, when a steady drum-roll of bad news from Nigeria appeared to be reaching an alarming crescendo.

On two different fronts, Jonathan is facing challenges that are threatening the stability of Africa’s largest oil-producing nation.

A wave of violence blamed on the Boko Haram Islamist group has left dozens of people – mostly Christians – dead in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim north. The attacks have raised fears that the country’s long-simmering divisions could ignite a sectarian civil war.

On the economic front, the Nigerian president is facing another potentially debilitating storm with a nationwide strike to protest his government’s recent removal of fuel subsidies.

More than 10,000 enraged demonstrators took to the streets of Nigeria’s commercial capital of Lagos on Monday, bearing effigies of Jonathan with devil horns and fanged teeth. At least one person was killed in Lagos, and in the northern city of Kano another two died and at least 31 people were wounded in clashes with security officers.

Suddenly, the man with the distinctive hat seems to have lost the advantage of his name, which many Nigerians believed their president enjoyed.

“Does he still have good luck? No, not at all,” said Nnamdi Obasi, director of Safer Africa Group, a Canadian-based think tank, in an interview with FRANCE 24 from Lagos. “There was a lot of sentimentality about him and his candidacy. People felt a need to break away from the past, they wanted someone who was not part of the ruling set, who could bring new ideas. Over time, a lot of this sentiment has dissipated.”

Ring in the New Year, ring out the old subsidy

Public anger has been especially high following the Jonathan administration’s Jan. 1 decision to unilaterally scrap subsidies that kept gas prices low in the West African nation. The decision saw gas prices rise from $1.70 per gallon to at least $3.50 per gallon.

Despite the country’s oil wealth, most of Nigeria’s 160 million citizens survive on less than $2 a day, making the prospect of a cost of living hike extremely tough on the country’s poorest communities.

Monday’s demonstrations protesting the subsidy removal saw protesters wearing “Occupy Nigeria” T-shirts, inspired by those near Wall Street in New York. Facebook, the popular social networking site, has erupted with a number of “Occupy Nigeria” pages. A signed protest statement included the names of prominent Nigerian cultural figures such as playwright Wole Soyinka and novelist Chinua Achebe.

But scrapping the fuel subsidy is not a new issue. Economists have long argued that the fuel subsidies propped up a corrupt, wasteful and unsustainable system that saw billions of dollars of public funds siphoned to a cartel of fuel importers. The government estimates it will save around $6 billion this year by eliminating the subsidy, funds that will be used to upgrade Nigeria’s ageing infrastructure, which has forced the oil-rich country to import costly refined fuel because it lacks refining capacity.

The real problem, according to Obasi, was the timing and the way the decision was announced.

Most Nigerians were not expecting a subsidy scrap until the 2012 statement at the end of March. “The timing of the announcement, at the peak of the Christmas and New Year celebrations, when people have run down their wallets, was a problem,” said Obassi. “The government did not make a sufficient attempt to persuade citizens.”

Public alarm over the increasing intensity and sophistication of Boko Haram attacks has also been mounting in recent days. In a statement titled, “Let not this fire spread,” three Nigerian literary giants – including Soyinka and Achebe - called on the government to act decisively.

“The country's leadership should not view the incessant attacks as mere temporary misfortune with which the citizenry must learn to live; they are precursors to events that could destabilise the entire country,” the statement read.

Two speeches too late

Two speeches by Jonathan over the past two days addressing the twin challenges facing his administration give a measure of the double trouble confronting the Nigerian leader.

At a Sunday church service in the capital of Abuja, Jonathan admitted for the first time that there were Boko Haram sympathisers in his government and the security agencies. The situation, Jonathan warned, was “even worse than the civil war,” when more than a million people were killed in the 1967-1970 Biafran conflict.

On Saturday, in a nationally broadcast speech, the Nigerian president pleaded with his countrymen for support. "If I were in your shoes at this moment, I probably would have reacted in the same manner,” he said before going on to add, “I urge all Nigerians to eschew bitterness and acrimony to live together in harmony and peace.”

“He should have said what he said on Saturday night earlier,” said Obasi, referring to Jonathan’s initial failure to address the fuel subsidy removal. “I would think the president should have made the announcement himself.”

Instead, the shock New Year announcement of the fuel subsidy scrap was made by the country’s Petroleum Products Pricing Regulatory Agency (PPPRA). By the time Jonathan addressed the legitimate concerns of his people, it was already too late.

Not too late for a redemption song

Even as the nation was gripped by crippling strikes protesting the fuel subsidy removal, Boko Haram’s attacks continued unabated. On Monday, authorities in northeastern Nigeria said Boko Haram gunmen killed a State Security Service official as he left a mosque.

Months before the 2011 Christmas Day attacks fueled a new round of Boko Haram violence, US intelligence and military officials were warning that the Nigerian Islamist group had forged ties with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and with the Somalia-based al Shabaab militant group.

The latest attacks are bound to bring up questions of Nigerian intelligence failures. Jonathan’s weekend speech admitting that there were Boko Haram sympathisers in the government and security agencies is not likely to allay most Nigerians’ security fears.

Some experts note that as a Christian, Jonathan has to tread more carefully while handling the Boko Haram crisis. “In this situation, the thing is not to leave yourself bare to accusations of heavy handedness or acting in a way that further radicalises northern youths, driving them to the enemy camp,” said Obasi.

But Obasi believes all is not yet lost for Nigeria’s embattled president. “In the long term, he can redeem himself if he can move fast enough on, for instance, improving the (country’s moribund) power sector or if Nigerians can see the benefits of removing the fuel subsidy,” said Obasi.

The question is, will Jonathan sing his redemption song before it’s too late. Luck is sometimes defined as being in the right time at the right place. It remains to be seen if Goodluck Jonathan can live up to his name.

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