Who’s in charge of Nigeria?
By Sebastian Spio-Garbrah and Willis Sparks For a country with a history of sectarian violence and military rule, is it more dangerous to have two presidents or no president? Nigeria may be about to find out. For more than a decade, Nigerians have embraced democracy. With the end of dictatorship in 1999, political heavyweights in ...
By Sebastian Spio-Garbrah and Willis Sparks
For a country with a history of sectarian violence and military rule, is it more dangerous to have two presidents or no president? Nigeria may be about to find out.
For more than a decade, Nigerians have embraced democracy. With the end of dictatorship in 1999, political heavyweights in Nigeria’s mainly Muslim northern provinces struck a deal with their counterparts in the Christian south on a regional rotation of Nigeria’s presidency. Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner and Christian, became president. As his second four-year term drew to a close in 2007, Obasanjo tried to persuade allies in parliament to help him rewrite Nigeria’s constitution and win a third term. Northern governors warned that it was their turn to choose a president. Some southerners countered that the north had controlled the country through more than three decades of dictatorship and that the south deserved more time. The country appeared headed for a showdown.
Once it became clear that Obasanjo didn’t have broad enough support within the political elite to extend his presidency, he endorsed a trusted successor — a little-known northern governor and devout Muslim named Umaru Yar’Adua. In April 2007, Yar’Adua won a landslide victory. Election monitors, both Western and African, charged that Yar’Adua had benefitted from widespread vote rigging, but relief inside and outside the country that conflict had been averted limited the volume of complaint.
Yar’Adua’s early promises to aggressively tackle corruption and to seek a long-overdue agreement with militia groups in the country’s oil-rich, violence-plagued Niger Delta region won him praise, both at home and abroad. Thanks largely to the Niger Delta’s plentiful crude oil reserves, Nigeria is Africa’s largest (and the world’s eighth-largest) oil exporter. The Delta provides Nigeria’s federal government with more than 80 percent of its export revenue. To negotiate with the Delta’s many armed groups, Yar’Adua relied heavily on Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian and a native of the region.
Last summer, after a series of false starts and an escalation of violence, the Delta peace process appeared to be gathering momentum. On June 26, Yar’Adua announced that the government would provide Delta residents with 10 percent of the country’s joint oil ventures and would create an amnesty program for militants willing to lay down their weapons. Those who chose to participate would receive a formal pardon, worker training, and employment assistance.
On July 12, the government signaled that it was serious about talks by releasing militia leader Henry Okah from prison. On July 15, the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the region’s largest armed group, announced a 60-day ceasefire. In August, the amnesty went into effect. In September, MEND dismissed the amnesty offer but extended its ceasefire for 30 days, pending further talks. Thousands of militants accepted the amnesty offer anyway. On October 25, MEND announced that its ceasefire would continue indefinitely. Hopes for a comprehensive peace agreement had never been higher.
Then President Yar’Adua got sick.
His health had been an issue from the first days of his presidency. In May 2008, he admitted during a television interview that he suffers from a kidney ailment while denying rumors that he was terminally ill. On November 23, 2009, just as talks with Niger Delta militants were beginning to show real progress, Yar’Adua was flown to Saudi Arabia for emergency medical care. Officials announced that the president suffered from serious heart problems and that it remained unclear when he might return to his country.
On December 19, MEND announced that delays in peace negotiations resulting from Yar’Adua’s absence were not acceptable — and that the group had carried out the first attack on a pipeline since the amnesty began.
On February 9, fears that a dangerous power vacuum had emerged led the parliament and national cabinet to name Goodluck Jonathan acting president, pending Yar’Adua’s return. The arrangement allowed that once Yar’Adua informed both houses of parliament in writing that he had returned from his "medical vacation," he would again become president. Not all members of Yar’Adua’s cabinet endorsed the temporary fix, and Jonathan, as acting president, quickly fired Justice Minister and Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa.
On February 17, Yar’Adua supporters within the cabinet blocked a bid by Jonathan’s supporters to have Yar’Adua declared "unfit to govern" and announced that a delegation would visit Yar’Adua in Saudi Arabia to check on his health. In the wee hours of February 24, Yar’Adua returned unexpectedly to Nigeria. Reports from the country claim that no one, including the acting president, has been allowed to see him.
Jonathan faces considerable pressure from some within his government to have Yar’Adua declared medically unable to serve and formally removed from office. If he removes large numbers of Yar’Adua loyalists from senior posts within the government and military, he could provoke a confrontation. If he acts only as a caretaker president, he won’t be able to tackle urgent problems like the return of violence to the Delta and chronic double-digit inflation. If he announces that he will not run for president in 2011, he will render himself instantly irrelevant, as a new race for power gets underway. If he announces that he will run, he will upset the delicate balance between north and south that appears to demand four more years of a northern presidency. There is also the risk that all this confusion will postpone the elections, creating a longer-term power vacuum that invites a military intervention.
Some northern governors warn that Jonathan has already taken decisions of greater consequence than an interim president should take, but it remains unclear if Yar’Adua is conscious. To ease fears of a constitutional crisis, US and British officials have offered Jonathan diplomatic support. As president, temporary or not, he will be ideally placed to negotiate with Niger Delta rebel groups — but only if the militants believe he has the power to make a deal that Nigeria’s military will honor.
In short, Goodluck Jonathan is in a very tough spot.
Sebastian Spio-Garbrah is an Africa analyst at Eurasia Group. Willis Sparks is an analyst in the firm’s global macro practice.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media. He is also the host of the television show GZERO World With Ian Bremmer. Twitter: @ianbremmer
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