Can Nigeria, still without its president, avoid a political crisis?

Africa's most populous nation has been without a leader since President Umaru Yar'Adua was rushed to a hospital in Saudi Arabia late last month. Key initiatives are stalling out.

By , Staff writer

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    Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua (r.) meets with Fifa president Joseph Sepp Blatter on November 15 at the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria.
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When Nigeria’s president Umaru Yar’Adua was rushed to a hospital in Saudi Arabia late last month, nobody expected that the entire government apparatus would grind to a halt in his absence.

Government spokesmen assure Nigerians that all presidential functions are now being performed by his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. But Mr. Yar'Adua appears not to have written a constitutionally mandated letter to the Nigerian Senate delegating key decisionmaking powers to Mr. Jonathan in his absence.

Meanwhile, a number of key policy initiatives are withering on the vine.

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Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta, recently promised a new round of peace talks with the government, are complaining of government inaction and talking of scrapping the cease-fire completely. Fuel supplies have fallen short at gas stations, as new government contracts for the independent distributors await the president’s signature. A supplemental budget for 2009, to pay for new development programs in the Niger Delta, also awaits the president’s approval, as do several court appointments to the Nigerian Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.

Perhaps more worrisome are the talks among northern Nigerian politicians, calling on Yar’Adua to resign so that they can hold new elections and replace Yar’Adua with another northerner, instead of a southerner like Jonathan, who hails from the troubled Niger Delta region.

“The country is already in a serious political crisis and constitutional crisis,” says Femi Falana, a senior attorney in Lagos, who has filed a lawsuit to clarify just who is in charge. Any decision that the vice president makes, any contract he approves, and appointment he makes, without that official letter from Yar’Adua, will lack legal authority, he says.

And if patience runs out among the Niger Delta rebels, “then you’ll have a major crisis on your hands.”

North-South horsetrading

As in the United States, the Nigerian Constitution has a clear policy on what happens when a leader is unable to perform his duties due to illness: power shifts to the vice president, and government continues to function. But in Nigeria, there is an informal political arrangement set up between the country’s largely Christian south and its Muslim north, to maintain communal peace by alternating power from north to south. After the eight-year rule of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, only northerners were allowed by political parties to run for president in the 2007 elections. Yar’Adua, a northern governor from Katsina State, was the winner.

Officially, the Nigerian government does continue to function, with Jonathan presiding over cabinet meetings as acting president.

“The Constitution is very clear on this point: The vice president is in charge,” says Dora Akunyilu, Minister of Information and Communication, in a brief telephone interview. She then quotes the statement of the Nigerian ambassador in Saudi Arabia, saying, “The doctors will decide when he can leave, they will decide what should be done.”

While some northern politicians from Yar’Adua’s own region have called for the president to resign, and for fresh elections to elect a new northern president, Yar’Adua’s cabinet has stood by him.

"Those who are calling for the president's resignation are unpatriotic,” Olusola Oke, the People’s Democratic Party legal adviser told the Vanguard newspaper. “Resignation is a voluntary thing and the president should not be coerced.

Lost opportunies?

Yet a growing number of Nigerian politicians are now worried about the lost opportunities of a presidency that lacks full leadership authority. It was the personal intervention of Yar’Adua that started the latest peace negotiations with the Niger Delta rebels, for instance, and Yar’Adua’s absence has largely meant that the negotiations have stalled.

Some Niger Delta rebels who refused to disarm have already returned to the jungles, according to rebel sources contacted by the Monitor.

“This power vacuum could put the Niger Delta amnesty [and peace process] into danger,” says Osita Okechukwu, public spokesman of the Congress of Nigerian Political Parties, an umbrella of opposition parties. “The militants are not waiting for anything. If the projects are not working, they will want to take over immediately, but because of the lack of funds, they may give up.”

Pat Utomi, who once ran as an independent presidential candidate against Yar’Adua and is now a lecturer at the Lagos Business School, says the only option is to swear in Goodluck Jonathan as president.

“To fail to do so is to signal to [the people of] the region of the vice president - the troubled Niger Delta - that Nigeria is rejecting them,” he says. “If that were to happen, the demobilized militants would go straight back to the creeks, and the game would even be turned up a notch.”

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