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Goodluck Jonathan’s journey to Nigeria’s presidency is also a story of how he lost it

AP Photo/Ben Curtis
Next stop, Bayelsa
  • Tom Burgis
By Tom Burgis

Author, The Looting Machine

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

In January 2011, a year after he sent troops to restore order in Jos, Goodluck Jonathan walked into Eagle Square, Abuja’s parade ground, to be invested as captain of Nigeria’s looting machine. He had already assumed the presidency after president Yar’Adua’s death, becoming the first son of the Niger Delta to hold the highest office in a political system fueled by the region’s oil. Now the People’s Democratic Party presidential primary was about to nominate him to serve a full term. His name and that of his wife, Patience, could not have been more apt for the occasion.

Twelve years earlier Jonathan had been an obscure zoologist in a back- water of the Delta. As the founders of the PDP cast around for candidates as they prepared to inherit power from the military in the 1999 elections, they sought someone for whom a particular ethnic group in a corner of Jonathan’s home state of Bayelsa might be persuaded—or, if necessary, coerced—to vote. Jonathan, a minor local environmental official, was reluctant but could not refuse when the local elders insisted. He was nominated as the PDP candidate for deputy governor of Bayelsa. The party won the presidency and the bulk of the governorships, as it has at every election since.

From there Jonathan’s rise was as meteoric as it was fortuitous. In 2005 the governor of Bayelsa, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was arrested in London on money laundering charges in connection with his $3.2 million of ill-gotten wealth that the Metropolitan Police said it found in cash and bank accounts. He skipped bail and made it back to Nigeria but, having fallen foul of his political masters at home, was impeached and, eventually, jailed. He was two years into his second and final term as governor when his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, was automatically promoted in his stead. That might have marked the peak of Jonathan’s ascent had it not been for the machinations that were then under way in Abuja, the city the political class crafted out of the bush in the center of the country in the 1980s after the erstwhile capital of Lagos had become bloated with the masses of the poor. The 2007 elections were drawing near, and Obasanjo was trying to tinker with the constitution to permit himself a third term. Although he was thwarted, he remained Nigeria’s political godfather, the kingmaker of the PDP, and he anointed Umaru Yar’Adua as the party’s candidate to succeed him. For the second name on the ticket the PDP needed a state governor from the Niger Delta. The oil province was restive. The newly formed MEND was destabilizing the font of the patronage system. Other candidates had made too many enemies as they rose through Nigerian politics and were so mired in corruption that their rivals had enough dirt to stymie their aspirations.

Jonathan was a political minnow, but with his fedora hat and his Ijaw blood, he fitted the bill. After elections that observers deemed the most fraudulent in Nigeria’s short democratic era, Jonathan became vice president. When Yar’Adua’s allies failed to cling to power as the president’s health faded, Jonathan was sworn in to serve out the remaining year of the presidential term.

As vice president, Jonathan had been routinely snubbed by the members of Yar’Adua’s inner circle. Even after he stepped into Yar’Adua’s shoes, the heavyweights of the PDP regarded him as a pawn, someone who lacked the heft to challenge their interests, even if he had wanted to. For that very reason the party barons and their allies among the oligarchs who controlled the economy felt comfortable with the new man and threw their weight behind him for the forthcoming elections, opting to risk the wrath of the northern establishment by ditching an unwritten rule that rotates power between ethnic blocs, under which the North’s turn had been cut short by Yar’Adua’s death.

As acrobats cartwheeled around Eagle Square, thirty-four hundred delegates from across the nation converged to select the PDP presidential candidate for an election due three months later. Such was the party’s grip on power that no one was in any doubt that the delegates were effectively selecting the next president. “We have never had the presidency before,” Rotimi Amaechi, the governor of Rivers, the Niger Delta state that includes Port Harcourt, told me. “So we want to have a bite.”

The PDP, which likes to call itself the biggest political party in Africa, is simultaneously rife with competing ethnic claims on power and patronage and the vehicle through which Nigeria’s revolving cast of rulers privately set aside their differences to ensure the continued hegemony of the looting class. It is also the political home of some brilliant lawmakers and scrupulous reformers. But they are in the minority. “It’s not a political party,” said Clement Nwankwo, who founded Nigeria’s first human rights organization in the days of military rule, did two stints in jail, failed in his attempt to stand for the national assembly as a PDP candidate because he couldn’t afford to pay the required bribes to party officials, and now ranks as one of Nigeria’s most astute political analysts. “It’s a platform to seize power and then share the resultant booty.”

Guarded by secret service agents, Nigeria’s potentates had gathered in the VIP stands of Eagle Square as dusk descended. Louis Armstrong’s voice lilted from giant speakers, singing “What a Wonderful World.” Night fell, unleashing mosquitoes. The representatives of north, south, east, and west—Muslims, Christians, and animists, speakers of half a dozen different languages—eyed one another with mistrust. Tempers frayed as supporters of Atiku Abubakar, a northern businessman and former vice president who had taken on the quixotic task of challenging an incumbent president for the PDP nomination, started to realize that they had been outmaneuvered and outspent. Jonathan’s victory had been ordained in advance. Each delegate received a cash bribe of $7,000 to vote for him, roughly five times the average Nigerian’s annual income. Bidding for the loyalty of all thirty-four hundred delegates would have cost the Jonathan campaign some $24 million. And that was just the basic payoff—higher-ranking officials could have expected much more. In the days leading up to the primary so much hard currency changed hands in Abuja that the dollar-naira exchange rate moved.

It was past 10 p.m. when the count started. Under the night sky PDP officials read the name written on each ballot. “Jonathan, Jonathan, Goodluck Jonathan.” Just after 6 a.m. the victor emerged from the bowels of Eagle Square. The party’s call-and-answer chant greeted him: “PDP! Power!” Triumphant, Jonathan waved an arm and vowed to break with “the corruption of the past that had held us down for too long.”

As he consolidated his position, Goodluck Jonathan’s senior aides told me and other foreign journalists in hotel-room briefings that he was what he claimed to be: “an agent of transformation.” He was using the dinosaurs of Nigerian politics to get him to the presidency, they said, but in time he would consign them to history and unleash Nigeria’s potential. And there were encouraging signs. Jonathan appointed Attahiru Jega, an upstanding northern professor, to head the electoral commission. The April 2011 elections were deeply flawed but marked an improvement on previous polls, though the resentment in the North that a southern Christian was usurping its stint in the presidency triggered three days of rioting that left eight hundred people dead.

The promised reforms began. Power stations were privatized, taking them out of the hands of a corrupt bureaucracy and raising the prospect that Nigeria’s crippling electricity shortages might ease. Nigeria’s image was improving—though, in many cases, it was no thanks to Jonathan. Babatunde Fashola, the governor of Lagos State and a leading light in one of the main opposition parties, started to restore a sense of civic pride to his city—laying roads, reining in the predatory police, and persuading Lagosians to pay their taxes. With much fanfare, Nigeria officially overtook South Africa as the continent’s biggest economy.

But Jonathan had little charisma. He lacked Yar’Adua’s depth of thought and the natural authority that Obasanjo possessed as a war hero and master tactician. The only way to maintain his grip on power was to open the sluice gates of the looting machine. Jonathan presided over a binge of corruption and embezzlement that was dizzying even by Nigerian standards. Nigeria’s pot of oil rent is enormous. Unlike the mining industry, from which African states glean a minimal share of the profits, between 65% and 85% of the income from oil extraction typically accrues to the governments who license oil companies to pump it. In recent years Nigeria’s annual oil income has ranged between $20 billion and $60 billion, depending on the price of oil and the level of violence in the Delta. The latter figure, for 2011, was one and a half times the profits Exxon Mobil, the world’s most profitable company, recorded that year. Jaw-dropping quantities of these revenues go missing each year and, although the nature of corruption is that it is hard to quantify, the theft appeared to accelerate under Jonathan.

There were those who tried to stem the deluge. “I’m emotionally drained because I’m swimming against the tide,” a reform-minded minister in Jonathan’s cabinet told me in August 2010, adding, with some under- statement, that “the fight against corruption is not going well.”

Lamido Sanusi, a blue-blooded banker from Kano whom Umaru Yar’Adua had appointed as central bank governor with the task of cleaning up a financial system imploding under the weight of malpractice, came to the fore. He used the central bank’s powers as best he could to arrest the perilous decline in Nigeria’s foreign currency reserves as the politicians splurged.

As the plundering started to run out of control, Sanusi compiled a dossier showing that scams involving NNPC, the national oil company that serves, like Sonangol to the Angolan Futungo, as the engine of Nigeria’s looting machine, were bleeding a billion dollars a month from the treasury. When Sanusi went public with his allegations in early 2014 Jonathan forced him out of the central bank, dealing a blow to the independence of one of the few Nigerian institutions with the power to check the excesses of the country’s rulers—though he could not prevent Sanusi’s appointment as Emir of Kano, an influential position in the North’s religious hierarchy. A short, wiry man with a penchant for bow ties, Sanusi understood that Nigeria’s petro-politics lay beneath the violence that was mounting across the nation, including the barbaric insurgency in the North launched by the jihadists of Boko Haram. “There’s a clear, direct link between the uneven distribution of resources and the rise in violence,” Sanusi said. “That’s not to say that the political system is not corrupt all over, but the most critical element is the poor infrastructure that makes it difficult for industrialization and job creation to take place.” Addressing the economic ills that helped to feed Boko Haram’s cause was next to impossible, however, while the looting machine was in such high gear. “What we have seen with Boko Haram and all the violence in the country should give politicians pause,” Sanusi went on. “Maybe it’s time to start asking if the very opportunistic identity politics . . . is not endangering the entire system.”

As Jonathan’s regime devoted itself to guzzling oil rents, Boko Haram, whose name means “Western education is forbidden,” sowed terror. From its heartland in the remote northeast its fighters bombed cities and burned villages across the North. Thousands died. The region’s idle young men, their prospects as bleak as those of the mill hands whose textile factories had been felled by Dutch Disease, were ready recruits. Abubakar Shekau, the sect’s megalomaniac leader, posted rambling videos online and established himself among the world’s most notorious jihadis. The corruption of the ruling class, as much as its bellicose interpretations of Quranic law, was Boko Haram’s rallying cry.

Like the Delta militias before them, Boko Haram’s guerrillas struck Abuja, the bubble of the elite, with car bombs, though that was nothing compared to the havoc it unleashed in the North. The military, incapacitated by corruption and its budgets embezzled, was no match for the gun-toting jihadists. When a raiding party abducted two hundred school-girls from the village of Chibok in April 2014, the extent to which the oil-sickened Nigerian state had become incapable of its most basic duty, to safeguard its citizens, was plain for all to see.


It was said of the last moments of the treacherous Thane of Cawdor – executed in the opening scenes of Macbeth – that “nothing in his life became him like the leaving it”. Goodluck Jonathan has not been executed; he’s just lost an election. But even some of his supporters would probably concur that his willingness to accept defeat and relinquish the Nigerian presidency overshadows any other achievement he could point to from a term in office tainted by pervasive corruption.

Nigeria has joined the small club of African nations to have staged a closely fought election in which the loser has departed office voluntarily. It now falls to the victor, a retired general called Muhammadu Buhari, to begin the still tougher task of trying to break the hold that oil money has over Nigeria’s politics. From a brief stint as a military ruler in the 1980s, Buhari has a reputation for clean – if heavy-handed – rule. If that reputation is to endure, he will need to ween the ruling class off the oil-funded patronage politics to which it has long been addicted.

Excerpted from “The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth” by Tom Burgis. Published by PublicAffairs Books. Copyright 2015 by Tom Burgis. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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