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."