President Yar'adua dies and Nigeria power struggle begins

Nigeria President Umaru Yar’Adua died late Wednesday and his former vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, was sworn in today. But will Jonathan run again in next year's election, or follow Nigeria's tradition of rotating the presidency between north and south?

Nigeria's acting president, Goodluck Jonathan (right), takes the oath of office in front of chief justice Aloysius Katsina-Alu (left), to become the nation's next leader, at the presidential villa in Abuja, Nigeria, Thursday. Jonathan was sworn in, just hours after the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua.

With the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua, and the swearing in of acting President Goodluck Jonathan, Nigeria’s power struggle should be over.

Unfortunately, with an election pending in 2011, the power struggle is just beginning.

Even before Mr. Yar’Adua’s passing, some of Nigeria’s best-known (if not actually loved) politicians were lining up for candidature for the presidential race. The next few months could be quite contentious, with major consequences not only for Nigeria – Africa’s most populous nation – but also for the many countries, including the US, which rely on Nigeria as a major supplier of oil.

“There is going to be a lot of power struggles within the PDP (Yar’Adua’s ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party) and in society at large,” says Charles Dokubo, a political analyst at the Nigerian Institute for Security Studies in Lagos. “Sometimes, in a situation like this, it could lead to a catastrophic situation. But I believe that the public sees an advantage to stability. For some time, they’ve been without leadership. I doubt Nigerians will want to go through that again.”

Yar’Adua’s health had been an issue from the first day of his presidency back in 2007, and it prevented him from achieving his major campaign promises, including the resolution of a longstanding conflict with the restive Niger Delta region, where much of the country’s oil wealth is found.

In his first months in power, Yar’Adua won applause for his efforts at financial reform and also his offer of amnesty to Niger Delta rebels, a move that brought about a welcome respite from the bombings and insurgent attacks that had cut back the Niger Delta’s oil production by more than half. But in his last months, Yar’Adua’s absence undid many of his accomplishments. His peace plan with the Niger Delta militants collapsed. His financial and anti-corruption reforms stalled. And in death, Yar’Adua has very little to show for his time in office.

“It is too short a time to say what his legacy was,” says Mr. Dokubo. “He came to power with a seven-point agenda, but none of those points has been achieved, because of ill health.”

In his absence, his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, should have been named acting president, according to the country’s Constitution. But ethnic politics quickly got in the way. Nigeria’s Constitution guarantees that the presidency will rotate from region to region, and there is an unwritten agreement that the presidency will rotate eery eight years between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south.

Northern supporters of Yar'Adua feel they have been shortchanged by having been represented by a president who was first too ill to govern and then died three years into his term. Even when Nigeria was essentially rendered leaderless by Yar'Adua's extended absence due to ill health, they stalled the appointment of Jonathan, a southerner from the Niger Delta region, for nearly three months.

Today, Jonathan was fully sworn in as president. But with elections just one year away, the true power struggle begins.

Will northern Nigerians insist that Jonathan be merely a caretaker president, and then stand down from contesting election in 2011, so that a northerner can be elected? Will other players, such as former military president Ibrahim Babangida, himself a southerner, enter the fray and urge that the northern-southern power rotation be set aside? Will the Army enter the fray, and rule either by coup d’etat or by fiat, as it has for more than half of the country’s history?

“I think the jury is still out,” says Dokubo. “Let’s see how it goes.”


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