Is Nigerian president Yar'Adua dead? His absence may spark political crisis

Rumors that Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, hospitalized for six weeks in Saudi Arabia, has gone into a coma have put the West African nation on edge.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters/File
Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'adua attends a Muslim prayer session in Abuja, Nigeria on September 29, 2009.

UPDATE: Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua breaks his silence.

Rumors that Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, hospitalized for six weeks in Saudi Arabia, is in a coma have put Africa's most populous nation on the path to political crisis.

Newspapers on Sunday published unattrributed reports that Mr. Yar’Adua had gone into a coma during ongoing medical treatment at King Fahd Hospital in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Government officials and spokesmen contacted say they are unsure of the president’s condition.

“I think it’s a bit difficult to say, because the information is coming from different sources, so it is not easy for us to navigate,” says Charles Dokubo, a government advisor and spokesman of the Nigerian Institute for Security Studies, a government think tank. “In this environment, you have to be careful what to say.”

Yar’Adua’s absence comes at a crucial time for Nigeria, a country that has become a major supplier of oil to the United States.

A government amnesty program with rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region has stalled, and rebel groups warn that their patience is running out. Nigeria has also come under fire for the growth of radical Islamist groups in the Muslim-dominated north, and the fact that the man who attempted to bomb the Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit was a Nigerian citizen.

While the country’s vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, has begun chairing security council meetings recently, there are still questions about whether Yar’Adua has completed the legal transfer of power to his vice president. In short, these are times that require strong leadership, not a lack thereof.

“The general political temperature is gearing up, and the general willingness of people to settle down is getting worse,” says Richard Moncrieff, head of the Dakar office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Partly this is because of the ongoing problem in the Niger Delta, which constantly reminds people how the federal government is funded [through oil revenues]. Then you have the North, where there are plenty of people who reject the state entirely. So it is a very dangerous context.”

With its oil wealth, Nigeria should rank among the richest oil-producing nations on earth. But rampant corruption has concentrated that wealth into the hands of a very few Nigerians, leaving out impoverished northerners, who increasingly turn to extremist Islamist movements, and also leaving out southerners in the Niger Delta, who have launched a six-year-long war against the state and against oil companies to forcibly take back oil resources for themselves. Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, recently rated Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

While Nigeria has a vigorous free press, the emergence of stories reporting on the president’s health over the weekend marked a major turning point, since many Nigerians refuse to speak about a person’s failing health. Even Femi Falana, who has launched a lawsuit to clarify just who is in charge refuses to speculate publicly about the president’s health. This forces government spokesmen to walk carefully when issuing statements to the media.

“In as much as we do not have a clear idea of what is happening, there are important government decisions which we do not know how they will be worked out,” says Mr. Dokubo. “But Nigeria is a country where the best is yet to come. We will have problems, but we will wobble through.”

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