Is the President of Nigeria Brain Dead?

His country heard his voice on the radio today. But it isn't reassuring anyone.

Early this morning, the BBC's Hausa service surprised its listeners with a three-minute interview with Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua. "I'm getting better from the treatment I'm getting," he said of an unspecified illness that has kept him out of the limelight for much of the past two months. "I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home."

Yar'Adua's apparent re-emergence followed Sunday's astonishing scoop in Nigeria's Next newspaper: The president was "brain-damaged," the paper concluded, and Nigeria had "effectively entered a post-Yar'Adua administration era." So, is the president of Africa's most populous country, and its largest oil producer, out of commission or not? Next is standing by its original story, and editors there are not the only Nigerians questioning the authenticity of the voice and demanding photographic evidence that their president is indeed alive. It's a question that matters: For all practical purposes, Nigeria has been without a government since November, its some 150 million people living in a tense, rumor-filled kind of limbo.

During the seven weeks since Yar'Adua was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia, Nigerian officials have either remained silent or made vague statements that Nigerians struggled to believe. "The president is recuperating," they said. "He will be home soon." The vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, reported having phone calls with his boss. The president even "signed the budget" at his hospital bed, one report said. Insisting that all was well, neither Yar'Adua's cabinet (whose members' jobs depend on his being in office) nor the attorney general has been willing to replace the incapacitated president with his deputy, as the Constitution mandates.

This behind-the-scenes crisis was already going on when Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit was nearly blown out of the sky on Christmas Day. A Nigerian citizen, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, is the alleged culprit. The United States placed Nigeria on a terrorism watch list after the event, even though Abdulmutallab's radicalization appears to have taken place in London and Yemen, not in Nigeria. Islamist extremist incidents in Nigeria's north have occurred sporadically over the years, to be sure. But they are carried out by local groups and center on local grievances. No one has yet produced credible evidence of any Nigerian group's ties to al Qaeda or its offshoots. The United States should be far more worried about Nigeria's political future than the Christmas Day bomber.

Indeed, the last month and a half of political uncertainty has been consumed by planning, plotting, and maneuvering among Nigeria's political classes. The debate revolves around two issues: Should Yar'Adua be replaced? The emerging consensus seems to be yes. And if so, who will become vice president?

In theory, the procedure for replacing Yar'Adua is clear: Nigeria's Constitution resembles its U.S. model, whereby the vice president succeeds his boss. But there are a few decidedly Nigerian differences that complicate matters. Any transition requires a medical confirmation that the president is in fact unable to govern, as well as a two-thirds vote of approval by the cabinet. Then, both houses of the National Assembly have to approve the successor's choice of vice president. This last bit -- the potential of an open post at the top -- means that the internal politics of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), Nigeria's de facto sole political party in a theoretically multiparty state, are where the real action is. The PDP has a substantial majority in both houses, but party loyalties are divided among many "godfathers."

Adding to the intrigue, Yar'Adua and his vice president were effectively imposed on the country by the former president, Olusegun Obasanjo, and his loyalists. Many Nigerians think that Obasanjo chose two intentionally weak men -- sickly in Yar'Adua's case and inexperienced in Jonathan's -- so he could exploit the weaknesses and continue to control the political process. Thwarted in his first attempt (Yar'Adua proved less malleable than expected), Obasanjo is undoubtedly one of those working to affect what happens now.

Another complicating factor is an informal PDP arrangement whereby the office of president is to alternate between the largely Christian south and the largely Muslim north every eight years. Obasanjo was from the south, so Yar'Adua, a Muslim, was supposed to be representing the north's turn. If he has to leave office early, some northerners might feel deprived of their full time to rule. However, influential voices from the north have joined those from the south in insisting that the constitutional provisions for succession must be followed.

Amid the jockeying for power, two divergent agendas have emerged. Supporters of the first are pushing for a northern vice president to be chosen, one who could become heir apparent to Jonathan, taking the 2011 presidential nomination for the PDP. Multiple, self-interested groups of current and former officeholders want to nominate the person who would benefit them most in power, say, by protecting them from future corruption or other legal probes.

The second agenda, which is playing out more quietly behind the scenes, comes from some Nigerians more concerned with the national interest than their own. Their goal is to find someone -- also a northerner -- of maturity, experience, stature, and integrity to be able to do two things: assist a President Jonathan in dealing with the overwhelming problems Nigeria faces (among them a failing economy and a fragile truce with insurgent groups in the Niger Delta) and put in place electoral reform. With national elections due in 2011, that reform, which is in draft form now, is desperately needed to give Nigeria's battered democracy -- in name only for a decade now -- a chance at last.

With so much at stake, there are more than a few people trying to move the process forward. Several lawsuits have surfaced in court, drawing on the Constitution to argue that the government must replace the incapacitated president. Demonstrations are also planned this week in Abuja, Lagos, and London, where many Nigerian expatriates reside. The protesters are demanding to know more about their president's health and insisting on constitutional succession. Prominent figures such as Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka have flown in to Abuja, and the House of Representatives is meeting to discuss the president's absence.

If the situation deteriorates, military intervention cannot be ruled out. Nigerians' desperation with their plight is startlingly evident. And the military has staged coups in the past when popular anger has boiled over. Still, the military hierarchy must know that to move now would be seen as aimed at blocking a Jonathan -- read "southern" --presidency. Widespread, unpredictable violence could be the result -- not least in the turbulent Niger Delta region, where many would see themselves deprived of their right to national leadership through Jonathan.

In the meantime, the BBC's interview with someone claiming to be Yar'Adua has done little to calm Nigerians or clarify the way forward. Unfortunately, there is little any outsider can do until Nigerians themselves work out who will actually take charge. That needs to happen soon.



Don't Break It

Why there's still hope for Yemen.

The Romans, notoriously tough to impress when it came to the barbarians on the fringes of their empire, knew Yemen as Arabia Felix, or Happy Araby. A few thousand years later, Yemen remains a surprisingly easy place for visitors to fall under the spell of. For one thing, there's just the way the country looks and feels -- Yemen's isolation, its lack of wealth, and a predilection for harboring al Qaeda members that scares away all investors and development, leave the country a rare and generally lovely remnant of old Arabia.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, you see office parks and Sheratons. When you walk through Yemen's 2,000-year-old capital, Sanaa, you still see arthritic camels turning stone mills to grind out olive oil, and blacksmiths blowing on coals in hole-in-the-wall smithies. Yemen's architecture is beautiful, and largely innocent of the modern era -- the entire old city of the capital is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Yemen's traditional buildings are designed against the desert, so that tall brick homes shade narrow streets and stained-glass windows in every home cut the glare. The sun-raked landscape is dramatic; stark stone cliffs cut by irrigated green valleys. Many of the people are friendly and curious about the ways of the world outside. Even now, with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemeni officials and ordinary citizens, and even many figures on the fringes of law and order, are cordial to Americans, welcoming them into homes and soliciting their opinions on local and world affairs, over rounds of coffee. Westerners remain uncommon enough that children sometimes call out to them in the streets; but Westerners remain tolerated enough that the children don't throw rocks. That's always nice. If you're an American and al Qaeda doesn't kill you on a visit to Yemen, odds are you'll love the place.

Thanks to Yemen's isolation, combined with what in many Yemenis seems to be inexperience in the ways of the outside world; a Yemeni tradition of hospitality; and perhaps a certain naïvete about the motivations and controllability of smiling visitors, Yemen can be as easy a place for foreign correspondents to work in as it is for al Qaeda. Within hours of calling up the foreign minister for an interview on one trip, I was in his home, listening to him complain that U.S. travel warnings, which had come after repeated al Qaeda attacks on foreigners, were killing Yemen's tourist business. Yemenis' addiction to chewing khat, a stimulant, and their tendency toward late-night business meetings lead the country's lawmakers and cabinet ministers to be a little more voluble than they ought. Outsiders help break the tedium for Yemenis -- one evening I ended the daily Ramadan-holiday fast with a former bodyguard of Osama bin Ladin, Nasser al-Bahri, now a self-proclaimed retired jihadi and businessman in Sanaa. Idle as any retiree, the ex-Qaeda figure, still a devotee of bin Laden, spoke with me for hours over dinner, than tagged along afterward to a travel agency to sit and talk for another half-hour while I waited to change a plane ticket.

Accessibility of hard-liners in Yemen is such that within hours of a deadly September 2008 attack on the U.S. Embassy that the United States and Yemen blamed on al Qaeda, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in the capital interviewing the Islamist brother-in-law of Abdul Majid al-Zindani. The United States calls Zindani a prominent recruiter and supplier for al Qaeda. The brother-in-law boasted that al Qaeda in Yemen now was stronger than the government. In Afghanistan, when other reporters and I were covering the advance of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in 2001, we used to joke about sticking at the end of our stories, "The Taliban were not available for comment." In Yemen, the other side in the United States' proclaimed war on terror is almost always available for comment.

My Yemeni experiences talking with courteous, even affable, men who endorsed attacks on all Americans while politely trying to avoid giving offense to the American immediately present underscored for me as much as any bombing the pervasive and daily nature of the threat that al Qaeda and its allies pose to the United States.

But my overall experiences in Yemen -- including the hospitality, the friendliness and openness of almost all of the Yemenis I met, and my perception of the country's isolation, inwardness and poverty -- lead me to believe that Yemen remains a country with wriggle room, where religious extremists cannot count on overwhelming sway and support. Yemen is a country that's weirdly bent, but isn't yet fully broken. We Americans shouldn't break it. The average Yemeni does not yet appear to entirely hate us, and U.S. prospects for checking al Qaeda here, if Americans are smart and diligent about it, still seem reasonable. Behaving as we did in the first years of our Afghanistan and Iraq engagements -- for example, carrying out repeated strikes on suspected Qaeda targets on what often was weak intelligence, with little regard for civilian lives and with scant understanding of local political fault lines -- would turn Yemenis against the United States, and toward religious militants. Sen. Joseph Lieberman's call last month for "pre-emptive" action in Yemen, evoking the Bush administration's build-up to the invasion of Iraq, was vague, but uncomfortably bellicose.

Yemen is not yet Afghanistan under the Taliban, nor is it neighboring Saudi Arabia, home to the harsher Wahabbi branch of Sunni Islam. Most of Yemen's Sunnis are Shafii, members of a branch founded by a studious 8th-century cleric known for traveling everywhere with a camel laden by books. Recent attempts by Yemeni clerics to introduce Saudi-style morals police in Yemen were widely unpopular.

Yemen is unique in that its president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is a Shiite governing over a majority-Sunni country. Saleh's government has tried to play a double game with al Qaeda and the United States; his defense minister even admitted enlisting al Qaeda and other Sunni religious extremists for the government's fight against a Shiite rebellion in Yemen's north. Western diplomats also accuse Saleh of long enjoying a de facto gentlemen's agreement with al Qaeda, in which he allowed Qaeda figures to live in Yemen as long as they didn't include strikes against Saleh's government or other targets in the country. For a Shiite leader intent on presenting himself to Western governments as cooperative, Saleh's accommodation with Sunni al Qaeda doesn't seem like such a good idea.

The new generation of al Qaeda and its allies has broken that arrangement, killing a number of European tourists in Yemen and occasionally striking Yemeni security forces, as in a July 2008 attack on a police station that killed one security officer. Saleh will undoubtedly meet some U.S. demands for increased action against al Qaeda, but his government will face stepped-up attacks by al Qaeda and its allies as a result. For the United States, easy options are few.

But there are some reasonable options for the United States in Yemen. Save for Lieberman, most informed observers in and out of the U.S. government seem to be stressing, correctly, that the United States should remain behind the scenes as much as possible in its fight against al Qaeda in Yemen, to avoid a popular backlash. The U.S. military's increased emphasis on taking care to limit civilian casualties in Afghanistan is therefore a good policy for U.S. strikes in Yemen. And well-targeted U.S. aid and development projects -- as opposed to throwing millions and millions of dollars at U.S. contractors, as has happened in Iraq and Afghanistan -- could go far. Yemen's basic needs are many, even for agricultural development, for example. The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in the world, with nearly half of Yemeni children malnourished. (That's owing in part to Yemenis' khat addiction, which takes water away from food crops to grow the chaw.)

Even the U.S. moves to beef up Yemen's counterterrorism forces could turn out to be a good idea -- although whole branches of some of Yemen's security forces are seen as unreliable, and Saleh has not been loath to turn his warplanes against Shiite civilians in the area of the northern rebellion, according to accounts from survivors among the civilians. (The government has blocked foreign reporters for years from travel to the site of the northern rebellion. However chatty its officials, Yemen's not entirely ideal for foreign reporters.) And given the refusal or inability of Saleh's government to arrest or re-arrest many of the al Qaeda figures wandering freely around some areas of the country, releasing more Guantánamo inmates to Yemen now seems a bad idea.

The United States already knows from its first years in Afghanistan and Iraq how to do it wrong, compelling a bigger infusion of U.S. troops in the latter years. In Yemen, for once, there seems to be an opportunity for smart and attentive efforts to do it right.


Update: The sentence reading "The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in Africa" was corrected to state "The United Nations says Yemen has one of the highest child-malnutrition rates in the world." FP regrets the error.