Asked how his son came by his unusual name, Pa Ebele Jonathan once told a reporter that as soon as the boy was born, “I instinctively realized that this child has that element of fortune.” Pa Jonathan, a canoe-maker from southern Nigeria, could not shake the thought. “I just said to myself, ‘this boy is lucky,'” he said.
“So I decided to call him Goodluck.” The father’s instinct proved true. But his son’s good fortune would often come after the misfortune of others. In 1999, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan was elected deputy governor of Bayelsa province in the south â€” only to become governor when his boss was arrested for embezzlement. This week Jonathan, elected Vice President of Nigeria in 2007, has become acting president after the country’s parliament decided his boss, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, was too sick to rule.
Jonathan will need more than luck to fix Nigeria. His most pressing job is to re-energize the peace process in the oil-rich southern Delta region. Talks to end the decade-old conflict with Delta rebels â€” they say they are fighting for a fairer share of the revenues from their land, and are also angry about the pollution caused by oil spills â€” was a central thrust of Yar’Adua’s early presidency. Six months ago, Yar’Adua persuaded the rebels to agree to a ceasefire and mass disarmament in return for an amnesty, a small monthly stipend, a 10% cut of all oil revenues and promises of large-scale development. (See pictures of the two sides of Nigeria)
But last November the president, a chain smoker who has been ill for years, left for Saudi for treatment for a heart condition from where he is yet to return, and the peace process â€” and all Nigeria â€” were left in limbo. In December, the main rebel group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), announced it had lost patience with the delay and re-started its campaign of attacks on pipelines and installations and kidnappings of Western oil workers. A few thousand gunmen with a thing for shades, bandoliers and fast boats had the global price of crude back in their crosshairs.
The arrival of a functioning president might change that. Until this week, little was known about the self-effacing Jonathan save for his fondness for a natty black fedora. But there are reasons to believe the 52-year-old might succeed in the Delta. His family is from the southern Ijaw tribe â€” the first time the rebels have been able to talk to one of their own in the presidency. And he knows his homeland. In 2007, Edwin Clark, a longtime mentor and powerful backer to Jonathan, took the then newly elected vice president to the wild and dangerous creeks of the Niger Delta. “He met some of the militant leaders,” says Clark. “He is aware of their demands, their aspirations and he is aware of everything, the neglect of our people.”
Jonathan is also well acquainted with the environmental damage oil has done to the Delta. He studied zoology, and later taught it at a university in the oil hub of Port Harcourt. He also once worked as an environmental protection officer in the region. “He will perform,” says Clark, a political powerbroker in the south and then man who persuaded Jonathan to stand for vice president. (See if a military coup would help Nigeria.)
As if to prove how seriously he takes the issue, Jonathan’s second action (after sacking the justice minister, who had campaigned most noisily against his promotion) was to call a meeting with the oil majors in Nigeria. The peace process was his top priority, he told executives from Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell. The rebels have already responded. On Feb. 12, MEND commander Mack Anthony told TIME he had declared a new 90-day ceasefire.
But knowing a problem is not the same as solving it. Some doubt Jonathan has the charisma to succeed where so many predecessors â€” both civilian and military â€” have failed. Even Clark, who describes his protÃ©gÃ© as “very humble, gentle, respectful and incorruptible; very quiet and intelligent,” concedes that, “sometimes I felt he was rather too gentle to be effective.”
And while Jonathan’s southern origin may please the rebels, it is likely to annoy the northern Muslim political elite, which has dominated Nigeria’s politics for decades. In the strange way of Abuja, the capital, this presidency was meant to be for a northerner. But with Yar’Adua sick and a southern Christian back in power, Nigeria’s sectarian divide â€” which frequently results in large scale Christian-Muslim pogroms â€” could worsen. “I have no confidence in his leadership,” Dr. Baba Ahmed, secretary general of the Supreme Council for Shariah in Nigeria, told TIME. “Jonathan is a frontline member of the Pentecostal church, which is the most vocal against Muslims.”
The septuagenarian Clark, who has suddenly become one of the most influential men in Africa, is another factor. Nigerian leaders often come with a powerful mentor working behind the scenes; a backer whose office is the only way to get to the big guy. On Feb. 11, two days after his protÃ©gÃ© took office, a mass of Nigeria’s rich, powerful and wannabes â€” parliamentarians, former ministers, ex-governors, a former police chief and even the head of a state-owned television station â€” crowded into the expansive living room of Clark’s Abuja mansion. Clark sensed his growing power. “I am [Jonathan’s] political godfather,” he told TIME, regarding the melee at his house with evident relish. (See how big of a threat are “Nigeria’s Taliban.”)
And then there’s corruption. Jonathan may have got the Bayelsa governorship through his boss’ alleged misdeeds, but he is hardly free of the biggest impediment to progress in Nigeria: corruption. The election that saw Yar’Adua and Jonathan win office was described by the E.U. Election Observation Mission to Nigeria as “not credible” due to “lack of transparency and evidence of fraud,” adding it had “no confidence in the results.” Jonathan’s 2007 declaration of $2.4 million in assets during the campaign also raised questions about how an academic and public servant could earn so much. Jonathan’s wife Patience was indicted by the anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission for money laundering in 2007. “He has a lot of baggage from the past,” says Musa Rafsanjani, head of the Zero Corruption lobby group.
Baggage has a habit of slowing a leader down â€” just what Nigeria does not need. “He owes all Nigerians a duty to act fast,” Lagos-based Guardian daily newspaper said in an editorial two days after his appointment. Or as the rebel commander Mack Anthony says: “Our man being at the helm does not mean our target has been achieved. If within 90 days Jonathan does not perform, we will go back to the creeks to re-launch the militancy.