Hearing Acting President Goodluck Jonathan live was a confrontation with my pre-conceived impressions. All the news reports from Nigeria have a similar air, in that they tend to depict him as an accidental leader being floated about in the wave of the turmoil that surrounds him. I’ve heard him being spoken of as though he is of no consequence, and truly, only time will tell if he is. Still, I was glad to see that this is not the way he depicts himself.
The event at the Center for Global Development followed his meeting with U.S. Pres. Barack Obama. He seemed self-assured, jocular but thoughtful, intelligent. His opening remarks were boiler-plate but very brief. 9 minutes to be exact.
“I’m more interested in what you all have to say,” he said.
This impressed me: He was willing to take on a room full of Nigerians and foreign policy thinkers for an hour and 21 minutes, instead of make a 1 hour long speech and run away after foot-dragging for half an hour.
He didn’t have notes and talked off-the-cuff, all the while keeping his charm. When he did speak, he was substantive, even where he was not specific. I do not remember a time when I listened to an African leader speak and I came away impressed. I’m glad to say that listening to our current president — well, Acting President — I was.
In the talk, he covered small arms, elections, nuclear power, economic issues, and the Niger-Delta. Here’s the story that I wrote for allAfrica.com on the event.
Nigeria: Electoral Reform, Energy Are Top Priorities for Acting President
Washington, DC — Acting President Goodluck Jonathan on Wednesday called for a curb on the sale of small arms around the world and for the international community to support Nigeria’s efforts to ensure free and fair elections.
Jonathan spoke at the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Washington, DC. He met earlier in the week with U.S. President Barack Obama and joined 47 other world leaders at the two-day Nuclear Security Summit, a U.S.-led effort to secure all loose nuclear materials around the world in the next four years.
Addressing a full audience at the CGD, Jonathan spoke approvingly of his meeting with Obama and expressed hopes of unfettered access to U.S. technologies in using nuclear energy for peaceful means. Talk of nuclear weapons segued into discussion of small arms, which Jonathan called “the real weapons of mass destruction” for developing countries.
“Why must Africa be the dumping ground for small arms and light weapons from developed countries?” he said. “It is a major setback for the continent of Africa.”
Jonathan called for a United Nations agreement to discourage the sale of small arms, citing their use in arming militias in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger delta region and upending governance efforts and electoral transparency.
But he hailed the progress that his administration has made on securing weapons in the delta through amnesty, rehabilitating young militia members and empowering the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC).
Infrastructure development in the Niger delta is still a challenge, Jonathan said, citing its unique swampy geography, and promised to hold contractors accountable when working there. In addition, he promised to expand Niger delta youth programs to all young people, not just to the more than 20,000 that joined militias.
To further Nigeria’s progress, Jonathan stressed the need for strong support to ensure that elections are free and fair. “If the elections are not credible they will not produce credible leaders,” he said. “If we don’t produce good leaders, the issues of good governance, the issues of corruption will be discouraged.”
Jonathan disagreed with a commenter who said that corruption was what undermined the credibility of Nigeria’s elections.
“Even when there was military rule, where there are no elections, there was still corruption,” he said. “[Nigerians] can conduct elections that can be credible, even with the current [election] laws.”
On the economy, Jonathan applauded U.S.-Nigeria private sector investment in the petroleum industry but stressed the need for foreigners to diversify their interests toward other sectors, such as investment in what he called “green gold” or agriculture.
He agreed with audience members who decried the “shifting of goalposts” on gas flaring by petroleum companies and noted the importance of consistent electricity, saying that without fixing electric power there would be no growth.
Audience members brought up the question of Nigeria’s international image, to which Jonathan applauded the early efforts of Nuhu Ribadu, former chief of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. He chided the Nigerian press for negative coverage of the country and failing to focus on the nation’s progress.
“Even in terms of the music industry, entertainment industry,” he said, “Nigeria dominates, but nobody talks about it. We over-celebrate the negative.”
The acting president also thanked the CGD for its efforts on Nigerian debt buyback and electoral reform, and expressed hope to work with the organization in the future.
Jonathan has been leading Nigeria since February when he took over from the country’s long-ailing president, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.