Feature

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.

EMMANUEL WOLE/AFP/Getty Images

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