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.
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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.
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.”
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.