He is the son of a canoe-carver, a mild-mannered academic who wears a fedora but eschews the flowing robes and bombastic brashness that often characterize Africa’s “Big Man” leaders.
When elected president in April 2011, he was described as “Nigeria’s Obama,” a leader who would bring change to the oil-rich but poverty-ridden nation.
His countrymen believed a divine hand orchestrated his success. After all, his name spoke of his destiny: Goodluck Jonathan.
Now, just nine months after his election, Jonathan is an embattled leader whose popularity has plummeted. A Christian from southern Nigeria, he faces the challenges of growing sectarian violence and angry citizens who took to the streets in recent weeks, carrying mock coffins and placards calling him “President Badluck.”
Protests over his decision to end fuel subsidies escalated to include discontent at corruption, mass unemployment and lack of infrastructure.
For many Nigerians, most of whom are struggling to get by on less than $2 a day, change is not coming quickly enough.
So why the loss of good will?
Journalist and commentator Tolu Ogunlesi suggests that Nigerians desperately wanted to believe in Jonathan’s capacity to bring change, largely because they liked his humility and identified with him.
Goodluck Jonathan, or GEJ as he is more commonly known, used his humble beginnings as political capital during his election campaign last year.
In an oft-repeated speech, he said, “In my early days in school I had no shoes, no school bags. I carried my books in my hands but never despaired, no car to take me to school, but I never despaired.
“There were days I had only one meal, but I never despaired. I walked miles and crossed rivers to school every day, but I never despaired. [I] didn’t have power, didn’t have generators, studied with lanterns, but I never despaired.
“In spite of these, I finished secondary school, attended the University of Port Harcourt, and now hold a doctorate degree. Fellow Nigerians, if I could make it, you too can make it!”
Citizens lapped up this man-of-the-people rhetoric, says Ogunlesi, a former recipient of the CNN African journalist award. “He came out of nowhere, and we all love an underdog.”
Even his name seemed to hold promise.
Nigerians believe one’s name can help shape a person’s destiny. So they tend to bestow on their children names with significant meaning. It is not uncommon to meet people named Fortune, Happiness, Charity, God’s Gift.
Names given in their native language are also imbued with symbolic and often religious meaning. Jonathan’s middle name, Ebele, means “God’s Wish.”
His late father, Lawrence, was quoted as saying in a biography of the president that he “called him Goodluck because although life was hard for me when he was born, I had this feeling that this boy would bring me good luck.”
His meteoric rise — from lowly civil servant to president of Africa’s most populous nation — seemed to trade on fortune. His political career began when he was elected deputy governor of Bayelsa, a small state in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta region, then quickly became governor when his predecessor was impeached on corruption charges.
From there he rose to national office — handpicked by party leaders to be vice president, then succeeded President Umaru Yar’Adua after the incumbent died in office. Just over a year later, he was elected in his own right.
In a country where would-be politicians spend millions of dollars campaigning, Jonathan never actively sought or hustled for political office.
He has simply been at the right place at the right time, patiently waiting for events to unfold in his favor.
The fall from grace
Critics say the loss of trust in Jonathan’s administration did not happen overnight. They cite a series of blunders, beginning with his effort, just months after his election, to extend the presidency term from four to six years.
He is also accused of being completely inept at handling the security issues posed by Boko Haram, a shadowy militant Islamic group that is said to favor strict Sharia law, and which is frequently blamed for the sectarian violence that is threatening the unity of the country.
“Jonathan has come across as clueless when it comes to dealing with Boko Haram,” Ogunlesi said. “No senior security officers have lost their jobs, nothing seems to have been done.”
But it is the abrupt removal of the fuel subsidy, in what has been described as a callous New Year’s Day “gift” that proved unacceptable for many Nigerians. There has been intense speculation in the country that the decision came suddenly because of pressure from the International Monetary Fund.
The announcement coincided with a visit to the country by IMF head Christine Lagarde weeks earlier.
“The fuel subsidy removal is the final straw. I’ve never seen such a massive loss of good will in so little time,” Ogunlesi said.
Jonathan also “outraged” Nigerians when talking about Boko Haram recently after admitting there were sympathizers of the Islamic group within his government. “Nigerians find it outrageous to hear him say this about his government, which he had a major part in putting together,” says Nigerian political journalist Terfa Tilley-Gyado. “People would like to know who they are and what efforts are being made to prosecute them.”
Perhaps mindful of the deposed governments in other countries across the continent, the president acted quickly and decisively to crush the growing resistance, deploying the military onto the streets with a mandate to use force on protesters.
Nigerians took to the streets on January 2, prompting him to meet with union leaders who demanded a return to the petrol pump price of 65 naira (40 cents). Negotiations have gone back and forth, and the most recent price concession of 97 naira (60 cents) appears to have appeased union leaders who called off nationwide strikes.
A weak — or deliberate — leader?
Political opponents argue that Jonathan, a biologist with a doctorate in zoology, does not have the political mettle to do business in Nigeria’s tough-guy political arena.
Human rights lawyer and activist Femi Falana has known Jonathan for more than a decade since he was a governor of Bayelsa state.
“Jonathan is a good guy who finds it difficult to offend people,” he says. “A lot of people around him try to take advantage of this good disposition.
“He needs to put his foot down and make his mind. He’s very slow.”
“He has failed to move against the oil cartel holding the country ransom,” Falana continued.
“He doesn’t get tough on companies like Shell to clean up when there are massive oil spills, like Obama did with BP in the Gulf of Mexico. Jonathan is a likable guy, but it takes more than that to govern this country.”
Last September Jonathan responded to his critics during a speech: “I don’t need to be a lion…I don’t need to operate like the pharaoh of Egypt, I don’t need to be an army general, but I can change this country without those traits.”
Those close to him describe a measured, contemplative man who likes to consult widely before making decisions.
HRH King A.J. Turner, a close adviser who has known Jonathan since their university days, told CNN, “The Jonathan I know doesn’t rush into making decisions and likes to involve a wide range of people and experts. That process takes time and can appear slow, but that is his style.”
Friends say one of the biggest misconceptions about Jonathan is that he is weak. “The same people calling him weak are the same ones now saying he’s a dictator. I feel so sad when people say things about him,” Turner said.
Turner, former managing director of the Niger Delta Development Commission, says Jonathan is a loyal friend who has competitive instincts — at least on the squash courts, a sport he plays “religiously.”
“He has beaten me a few times,” he adds.
He describes a man who unwinds from the stresses of the job by listening to the music of legendary Afrobeat musician Fela Kuti.
“He loves Fela’s music so much,” Turner says. But Fela’s brash revolutionary style of music might make uncomfortable listening for Jonathan these days.
Before he died, Fela Kuti frequently clashed with the authorities, and his youngest son, Seun Kuti, was among those leading demonstrations against GEJ’s government during the uprising against fuel prices.
Even Jonathan’s wife, Patience, has seemed a liability for the president. She has faced unproven allegations of corruption and is frequently the butt of jokes because of what others describe as her poor grasp of English.
A U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks and reported in the Nigerian media only added to his image as a weak leader: It stated that the First Lady “runs her own show, and the husband has little or no control over her.”
The Facebook president and the future
Just as protesters have successfully used social media to organize demonstrations under the “Occupy Nigeria” moniker, Jonathan has also been adept at using Facebook to engage with Nigerian youth, who voted overwhelmingly for him.
He was the first Nigerian leader to have a Facebook page and has been dubbed “the Facebook president.” He makes frequent updates — which appear to be written by him — but his page is now a receptacle of the public’s anger against him, with numerous insults being posted there.
Turner says Nigerians “don’t like to support their leaders” but need to give Jonathan time.
“Nigerians should allow him time to focus on what he wants to achieve. He has not been in power for a long time. He has not been given any breathing space to focus on the issues,” he said.
In a January 7 speech, Jonathan said elimination of the subsidy was a tough but necessary choice for the country’s economic future. “I am determined to leave behind a better Nigeria that we all can be proud of. To do so, I must make sure that we have the resources and the means to grow our economy to be resilient and to sustain improved livelihood for our people. We must act in the public interest, no matter how tough, for the pains of today cannot be compared to the benefits of tomorrow.”
Stephanie Busari, CNN