Can Nigeria, Still without Its President, Avoid a Political Crisis?

Article excerpt

Africa's most populous nation has been without a leader since President Umaru Yar'Adua was rushed to a hospital in Saudi Arabia late last month. Key initiatives are stalling out.

When Nigeria's president Umaru Yar'Adua was rushed to a hospital

in Saudi Arabia late last month, nobody expected that the entire

government apparatus would grind to a halt in his absence.

Government spokesmen assure Nigerians that all presidential

functions are now being performed by his vice president, Goodluck

Jonathan. But Mr. Yar'Adua appears not to have written a

constitutionally mandated letter to the Nigerian Senate delegating

key decisionmaking powers to Mr. Jonathan in his absence.

Meanwhile, a number of key policy initiatives are withering on the

vine.

Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta, recently promised a new round of

peace talks with the government, are complaining of government

inaction and talking of scrapping the cease-fire completely. Fuel

supplies have fallen short at gas stations, as new government

contracts for the independent distributors await the president's

signature. A supplemental budget for 2009, to pay for new development

programs in the Niger Delta, also awaits the president's approval,

as do several court appointments to the Nigerian Supreme Court and

Court of Appeals.

Perhaps more worrisome are the talks among northern Nigerian

politicians, calling on Yar'Adua to resign so that they can hold

new elections and replace Yar'Adua with another northerner, instead

of a southerner like Jonathan, who hails from the troubled Niger

Delta region.

"The country is already in a serious political crisis and

constitutional crisis," says Femi Falana, a senior attorney in

Lagos, who has filed a lawsuit to clarify just who is in charge. Any

decision that the vice president makes, any contract he approves, and

appointment he makes, without that official letter from Yar'Adua,

will lack legal authority, he says.

And if patience runs out among the Niger Delta rebels, "then

you'll have a major crisis on your hands."

North-South horsetradingAs in the United States, the Nigerian

Constitution has a clear policy on what happens when a leader is

unable to perform his duties due to illness: power shifts to the vice

president, and government continues to function. But in Nigeria,

there is an informal political arrangement set up between the

country's largely Christian south and its Muslim north, to maintain

communal peace by alternating power from north to south. After the

eight-year rule of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner,

only northerners were allowed by political parties to run for

president in the 2007 elections. …