ACCORDING to his spokesman, the man who has just become the acting president of Africaâ€™s most populous country, Goodluck Jonathan, has vowed to â€œsecure Nigeriaâ€™s path to greatness and guarantee our place among the great nations of the world in the shortest possible time.â€ That would be a tall order even for a freshly elected leader with a thumping majority and two terms in office. In fact, the spokesmanâ€™s desperate hyperbole reveals the truth of the matter: Mr Jonathan is taking over the leadership of one of the worldâ€™s least governable countries in the least promising circumstances.
Some doubt the constitutionality of his succession to Umaru Yarâ€™Adua, who supposedly still lies gravely ill in a Saudi hospital. And as the presidency rotates between a northern Muslim and a southern Christian, to satisfy both sides of Nigeriaâ€™s ethnic-religious divide, so Mr Jonathan, a southerner, probably has only a little more than a year in office before being replaced in the next election. To many of Nigeriaâ€™s ambitious politicians, he is more lame duck than Goodluck.
Given these constraints, Mr Jonathan could be forgiven, perhaps, for just keeping his head down and the seat warm for his successor. His lacklustre record as vice-president and before that as governor of Bayelsa state suggests, alas, that this would be his instinct. However, he also has a rare chance to be radically more ambitious. Since Mr Jonathan has little to lose politically, he could position himself as a bold reformer. If he wants to make a difference in the year he has in charge he should devote himself to two policies.
His first concern should be the Niger Delta. After six years of an insurgency in Nigeriaâ€™s oil-producing region, last summer Mr Yarâ€™Adua negotiated an amnesty and a ceasefire with the rebel groups. Thousands of young men gave themselves up and handed over their weapons in return for promises of stipends and training. Yet with the months of uncertainty at the top of Nigerian politics, the momentum has been lost in the Delta; money has not been paid, the training programmes have fallen behind and there is little evidence of the roads and schools that were promised to local people. Mr Jonathan must dispel this dangerous sense of drift. He has the resources to honour the commitments made by Mr Yarâ€™Adua in full, and he should do so as quickly as possible.
Give democracy a chance
Even more importantly, Mr Jonathan should also reform Nigeriaâ€™s dreadful electoral system. The last election, in 2007, was a travesty; some judged it to be the most rigged poll in the countryâ€™s history, others in the history of Africa. Either would be quite an achievement. Without fixing the political system, there is no hope of tackling Nigeriaâ€™s other woes, such as corruption, because the government will always lack the legitimacy to take harsh decisions and act on them.
An official commission last year suggested several changes to the electoral system, such as taking the power to appoint the head of the body that supervises elections away from the president and giving it instead to an independent committee. This, and other sensible proposals, were all rejected by Mr Yarâ€™Adua. Mr Jonathan should reverse that decision. Above all, he should create Nigeriaâ€™s first truly independent electoral commission. That will antagonise his fellow politicians, who do so well out of the present wretched system, but it will send a firm signal that Nigeria is on the right track and it will delight the countryâ€™s long-suffering voters. Who knows, the reward for Mr Jonathan might just be to cheat the Buggins turn of presidential succession in Nigeria and win his own popular mandate in 2011.