Time for a New Nigerian President

A former government minister tells the inside story of how trickery, corruption, political plots, and a power vacuum are tearing apart this West African giant.

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

The return of Nigeria’s long-absent President Umaru Yar’Adua to the capital city of Abuja in late February has thrown the West African country into a dangerous existential crisis. The president is still apparently incapacitated, but his cadres are certainly not — and they are doing all they can to remain in power. Yar’Adua’s henchmen now threaten not only the constitutional succession process, which had placed provisional powers in the hands of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, but also Nigeria’s very stability. Ethnic violence in the city of Jos broke out in early March amid the current governance vacuum, leaving hundreds dead; worse could follow if the political stalemate isn’t resolved soon. The stakes for the country’s 150 million people couldn’t be higher.

Yar’Adua’s inner circle has shown itself quite adept at spreading falsehoods — misinforming and misleading Nigerians into mass violence if necessary — to preserve its hold on power. Since the crisis began, the presidency has been framed as if it were a rotating office, traded every eight years between the supposedly Christian South and Muslim North. Yar’Adua’s cabal has used this idea to whip up primordial sentiment, persuading the country and the international community of an invented North-South chasm and concealing a selfish agenda under the aegis of preventing a Muslim vs. Christian religious divide. It is a clever ruse to prevent Jonathan (who is from the South) from succeeding Yar’Adua (who hails from the North). And the reduction of Nigeria’s complex political problems to such clichés and sound bites, obediently repeated by diplomats and media helps propagate the myth that politics has to be governed by regional rivalries. According to that false tradition, Yar’Adua (or someone from the North) must remain in power.

This is not only disingenuous but dangerous. Since Yar’Adua’s return, Jonathan, who became acting president in early February, has faced constant obstruction and undermining by the Yar’Adua cabal. The president’s press secretary, for example, has continued to issue his own statements, referring to the acting president not in that role but as vice president. And until their firing last week when Jonathan dissolved the cabinet, Yar’Adua’s ministers were fighting tooth and nail to stay in office, clinging to the rents and patronage that came with their posts. Knowing that the law and the Nigerian Constitution were not on their side — in Nigeria, an ill and incapacitated president must be formally and permanently removed from office through the constitutional process — their only recourse was the age-old yet often effective strategy of playing off North-South tensions.

As a result, politics in Nigeria have come to a dangerous standstill. The nascent amnesty deal in the Niger Delta has failed to progress, and the rebel group the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta has carried out several "warning" attacks. The 2010 budget was delayed three months and only recently passed. Civil servants are threatening to go on strike. And electoral reform, promised three years ago after flawed 2007 elections has hardly budged. Protesters marched in Abuja March 31 to demand the current electoral commission chairman not be reappointed. Things have gotten so bad that Nigerians are finally taking to the streets, demanding an end to the succession battle and a return of attention to the business of actually governing Nigeria. (Finally, the Senate just approved Jonathan’s cabinet nominees.)

There is also a more direct human cost to all this; look no further than Jos, where the perpetrators of the recent violence took advantage of the power vacuum presented by the current political struggle. These ethnic militias, like much of Nigeria, assume that the president is permanently incapacitated; were he not, would he have snuck into Abuja as he did? Yar’Adua returned not with a homecoming parade, but with an unauthorized military deployment in the middle of the night.

The political mayhem and the ethnic tensions fomented by the Yar’Adua faction have pushed Nigeria closer than ever either to a repeat of the country’s 1967-1970 civil war, in which the southern Biafra region sought to secede, or the return of military intervention. In pushing so hard on the North-South divide, Yar’Adua’s supporters risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy; if regions are told they will be the "losers" of a constitutional transition, they might pick up arms to defend their position. Military leaders resolutely believe in the integrity of the Nigerian state, so if the country were to approach the brink of disintegration, they would likely step in. Goodbye, Nigerian democracy.

What’s needed now is a clean sweep of the administration to remove potential troublemakers, which Jonathan has begun with his cabinet shuffle. But the first matter to address is a comprehensive and public assessment of Yar’Adua’s health and his ability to carry out the duties of his office. This is an area on which the international community must come to Nigeria’s assistance with any intelligence gathered from Yar’Adua’s three-month hospital stay in Saudi Arabia.

From there, what’s needed is the strict observance of the constitutional succession process to lawfully replace the ailing president with the acting president, as established under Section 144 of the Nigerian Constitution. This requires the cabinet to pass a resolution with a two-thirds majority affirming the president’s inability to govern, a confirmation by a medical board appointed by the Senate president, and the swearing-in of the acting president as substantive president of Nigeria. If this process is manipulated or obstructed by Yar’Adua’s loyalists, the two houses of the National Assembly must remove the president through impeachment for gross misconduct, incompetence, abuse, and corruption in the discharge of his office. The grounds for doing so are clear: Yar’Adua’s supporters have refused to allow an independent medical assessment of his condition, and the president, if he is conscious, has failed to transfer the powers of his office to Jonathan, in contravention of the law.

Nigeria needs political support, partnership, and encouragement to undergo this existential challenge — and understandably perhaps, we have exhausted the patience of many of our people and allies. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson already gave an early indication of American support for a constitutional transition in a Feb. 24 statement: "We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisers to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process." Similar statements from British, Canadian, and EU officials have been helpful in strengthening the acting president. More of this support from the international community is needed.

But we all need to use a fresh lens when looking at Nigeria. Backroom deals in which political elites negotiate the fate of Nigeria’s 150 million people are a relic of the past — or they should be. The North-South power rotation, or "zoning" arrangement, that pretends to offer stability to Nigeria’s ethnically diverse population has morphed into a convenient justification for self-centered politicians.

Nigeria is too big and has too much going for it to be allowed to fail. Despite the political crisis, the green shoots of real democracy are appearing across the country. Some state governors, such as Raji Fashola of Lagos and Rotimi Amaechi of Rivers are beginning to deliver services to the people. Civil society is stronger than ever, empowered through new technologies, including text-messaging and social-media organizing. The international community must respond to what Nigeria could be — and not remain captive to memories of its recent past. Nigerians must not be constrained by those who have a vested interest in the old way of doing business.

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