When I was working in Nigeria, I refused to dabble in conspiracy theories about the health of President Umaru Yar'Adua. All of his opponents told me that he was sick -- that he worked only four hours a day. His advisors told me the story was a load of baloney. Since there had already been one ridiculous, overblown story of the president's death while on the campaign trail, I was inclined to believe the middle: he was sick, but not decapacitated.
Now, a year and a half later, no one has seen the president for six weeks, at least three lawsuits are pending in court to declare him unfit for service, the opposition is claiming that his recent signature on a budget bill was forged, and even his allies in the ruling People's Democratic Party don't know when he'll return. A group of expats have even written to Saudi Arabia's king, asking him to relay information about Yar'Adua's health.
This should terrify anyone who gives a hoot about Nigeria, broader West Africa, terrorism, or even oil prices. Nigeria is the lynchpin of the region -- the largest economy and by far Africa's most populous. But it rests on a very precarious balance, and a power vacuum there could create a whole host of scenarios that I could only speculate about (and desperately hope don't occur.)
First, the country has a long history of coups (ominously, one took place in 1983 when then military President Muhammadu Buhari was in Saudi Arabia.) Military rule put the country's people under house arrest for decades -- an experience that they would surely rather repeat. But it's not entirely unlikely. In Nigeria's short democratic history, the country has made a de facto compromise to alternate leaders from the Muslim North and the Christian South. The rotation matters because governance in Nigeria traditionally yields patronage -- a lot of patronage -- in the form of government jobs, local budgets, and well, cash. Yar'Adua is from the North, and some in the military, which has traditionally been made up of Northerners, would surely not look pleasantly upon forfeiting their "turn" to rule to the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan, who comes from the Niger Delta region.
If this worse-case doesn't happen, Yar'Adua's disappearance will set the country back on a host of things that it desperately needs to accomplish. The precarious peace in the oil-producing Niger Delta, for now, rests essentially on Yar'Adua's character and personal promises to insurgent leaders there. On December 19, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta claimed responsibility in an e-mail for a "warning attack" that the peace was in jeopardy: " While wishing the president a speedy recovery, a situation where the future of the Niger Delta is tied to the health and well being of one man is unacceptable."
Then there's the new terrorism concerns, following the Christmas-day bomber. I tend to think that the threat of terrorism from Nigeria is real, if extremely overblown. Still, good luck getting help from the Nigerian government in fighting terror when who the "Nigerian government" is is really anyone's guess.
And then of course there is corruption. Yar'Adua is one of the only Nigierian politicians I can think of who has a completely spotless personal record, and his example alone means something (though not as much as many had hoped when he was elected). It would be a shame to lose his leadership, however frail.
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