Nigeria gets new President – but for how long?

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The Independent Online

Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in as President of Nigeria yesterday after Umaru Yar'Adua finally succumbed to an illness that meant he had not been seen in public for six months.

The death of the Muslim northerner has ended a macabre period in which the critically ill leader was hidden from view by a powerful clique of advisors including his wife, Turab. Public support for Mr Yar'Adua, whose body was flown to his home state for burial yesterday, disintegrated amid desperate efforts by his inner circle to retain power by pretending that the chronically ill leader was poised for a recovery.

Thousands flocked to Mr Yar'Adua's northern hometown of Katsina yesterday, with crowds at the airport for his body's return and still more awaiting the dignitaries expected for his funeral at the city's stadium.

The new president, a Christian southerner, now faces a short tenure which could give him as little as nine months to establish himself before the country faces fresh elections.

"On the street people don't care about Yar'Adua, whatever goodwill he had was gone," said Inemo Samiama, executive director of the civil advocacy group Stakeholder Democracy Network based in the oil city of Port Harcourt.

The main challenges facing the man who had been acting president since February include electoral reform; improving electricity supply in a country where 70 per cent of people live without reliable power; and resolving the conflict in the Niger Delta which produces the oil on which the economy is almost entirely dependent.

"For Goodluck it's so far so good, but that's more because he's said the right things than because of concrete policy," said Mr Samiama.

The first president born in the Niger Delta has already garnered strong support from the international community and qualified backing from civil society with early moves which have included reshuffling a cabinet widely seen as dysfunctional and sacking the discredited head of the electoral commission.

Mr Jonathan was received at the White House by President Barack Obama last month in a visit that underlined the importance of Nigeria as the US's fourth largest oil supplier.

The former vice president has already been told not to run in next year's poll by his own party, the ruling PDP, and faces intense pressure not to break the informal agreement that north and south candidates take turns in the highest office. However, a strong early performance by the man dubbed the "accidental president" could see him defy the PDP.

At issue is whether or not Jonathan – a southerner – will be able to run as the PDP's candidate and break the unwritten rule that power should sit with a northerner for two terms before it returns to the south.

After being sworn in the new president said he would focus on fighting corruption and ensuring a fair election. "One of the true tests will be that all votes count and are counted in our upcoming presidential election," he said.

Other powerful candidates have already signalled their intention to run, but some analysts believe the man from Bayelsa State has already started planning his campaign for the poll expected in April. "The momentum will be on his side," said Mr Samiama. "He's a politician and he'll take up the challenge."