Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan seeks re-election in a tightly contested vote

President Goodluck Jonathan has promised to do more to fight graft and insecurity as he seeks to be re-elected for the second term. Critics have accused Jonathan of being ineffectual in the two issues Nigerians feels strongly about- a charge he denies.

BAYELSA, NIGERIA (REUTERS) – With a week to go until Nigeria’s most tightly contested election since the end of military rule in 1999, the incumbent president is hoping to be voted back into office.

Until November 2009, Goodluck Jonathan was serving out his time as a little-known deputy governor from the swamps and creeks of the oil producing Niger Delta.

He served as governor for two years before being handpicked by former President Olusegun Obasanjo to run on the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) ticket as vice-presidential candidate in 2007.

But then, President Umaru Yar’Adua was taken to hospital in Saudi Arabia and was not seen again in public until he died on May 5, 2010.

After months of wrangling, Jonathan was accepted as acting leader and was sworn into office.

In 2011, he won his first election – for president – in election observers called the fairest in decades in one of Africa’s most fractious democracies.

While Jonathan’s and his main challenger Muhammadu Buhari’s campaigns have focused mainly on corruption and the economy, Jonathan has reached out to youths who comprise the biggest voting bloc in Nigeria.

“Those of you who are voting for the first time, your decision to vote will be either you vote for a Nigerian youth to be important, to be relevant in this country or a Nigerian youth to be treated as a nonsense person and I believe all you want to be relevant,” Jonathan told a cheering crowd in one of his recent re-election campaigns.

A former Zoology teacher who was born to a family of canoe makers, he grew up in a poverty-ravaged rural village in the Niger Delta before becoming the president of Africa’s most populous nation.

His grass to grace rise has always endeared him to the youths.

“Ever since President Goodluck came on board, we have noticed changes in Nigeria and we believe a second term for Mr President is a second term of change for Nigeria and that is why we are all here. He is the father of youths actually and that is why we are all here and he has been a friend to the youth, that is why were are supporting him,” said one Jonathan supporter.

Jonathan’s time as vice-president was credited with successful negotiations with militants in the Niger Delta.

Many of the militants lay down their weapons as part of a government amnesty.

But he has had no such luck in the north, where an insurgency by militant Islamist group Boko Haram has gained momentum under his rule. The outcome of the elections this year may have tilted against the man who was the peoples’ favourite four years ago

It has led to his critics accusing him of being ineffectual – a charge he denies.

Ebun Adegboruwa is a human rights activist and lawyer who is a keen follower of Nigerian politics.

“A lot of us believe that the president has squandered the opportunity that was given to him in the last four years. Here is somebody who has enjoyed the greatest access to public office. He was deputy governor, and then became governor, he was vice president, then became president. There is no other individual in the history of this country that has had the opportunity of such meteoric rise to be able to get to this level that God has elevated him. It is our belief that he squandered that opportunity,” Adegboruwa says.

Boko Haram, a Sunni insurgency which recently pledged allegiance to Islamic state that rules a self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria, has killed thousands of people in a six-year onslaught aimed at establishing an Islamic caliphate in northeast Nigeria.

Jonathan suffered a major blow recently when Obasanjo, his former backer, burnt his party membership card and threw his weight behind Buhari.

Under Jonathan’s government, more than two hundred school girls were abducted leading to international outcry – most are yet to be found.

Jonathan, a southern Christian, is overall more popular in the largely Christian south, while Buhari, a northern Muslim, is more popular in the mostly Muslim north but both must seek broad appeal across regions in order to win.

His main challenger Buhari, who is seen as tough on security and graft, has campaigned on a reputation for toughness gained when he was military ruler of Nigeria in the 1980s.

Nigeria, with the help of Chad, Cameroon and Niger has recaptured several towns in a regional offensive that has turned the tide against the six-year old jihadi insurgency.

To appeal to voters, Jonathan has revamped railway transport and cut power tariffs by half.

Adegboruwa thinks that it is a little too late.

“There is this general euphoria to get him out of office. Not necessarily because we prefer Buhari as an alternative, but because we think that he has not been able to get himself into a grasp of how to move this country forward. Maybe he has the desire, maybe he has the effort, people may surround him who are maybe not allowing him, but I think that it will be a disservice to ask us to experience another four years of this seeming stagnation,” he said.

Jonathan is backed by PDP whose candidate has won every presidential race since the end of military rule 16 years ago.

Opposition parties are confident they may be able to force a run-off.

Nigeria is a patchwork of more than 200 ethnic groups, roughly equally divided between Christians and Muslims, who generally live peacefully side by side, but regional and ethnic rivalries bubble under the surface.

Although Jonathan has drawn attention to his achievements including creating more universities and privatizing the power sector, the problem of insurgency still hovers over him.