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Nigeria Fragmented and Unstable

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The Nigerian political system remains fragmented and unstable. President Umaru Yar'Adua is incommunicado, despite fanciful reports of him playing with his grandchildren. The small cabal surrounding him, led by his wife Turai, has prevented outside political figures from seeing him, including acting president Goodluck Jonathan (though there was a report, since denied, that he had), while the cabinet is divided between supporters of Yar'Adua and Jonathan. As long as Yar'Adua remains president, Jonathan's constitutional legitimacy is compromised and his political space constrained.

However, at least one minister has called for the president's "political euthanasia". The expectation among Jonathan's supporters had been that the cabinet would begin this week the process to remove the president by declaring him incapacitated. Instead, at their March 3 meeting, the cabinet took no action. In the meantime, Jonathan continues to try to build support. On Wednesday, he met with the Nigeria Governors Forum, which includes a Yar'Adua son-in-law and other supporters of the ailing president. State governors have become particularly powerful in recent days because of the fragmentation in the federal government. Gaining their support would most likely facilitate a solution to the presidential crisis. However, that support does not seem forthcoming.

He has also appointed a presidential advisory committee, a federal projects assessment committee and a committee to monitor developments in the Niger Delta. Of the three, the presidential advisory committee is the most important, demonstrating that Jonathan has the support of some of the most powerful interests in the country, if they all agree to serve. Its membership appears to be carefully balanced to reflect the traditional divisions and interests in the country. Theophilus Danjuma, a retired general who was deeply involved in the series of military governments following the Biafra war, has been named to chair the committee. Danjuma is from a minority tribe in the Middle Belt, but he has links to the military and also to the now-divided Muslim establishment. In addition, other powerful personalities, such as Basil Omiyi, former chairman of Shell Nigeria, and constitutional lawyer and political activist Ben Nwabueze are also members. The personalities and interests they lead are more powerful than those of the official cabinet.

However, the advisory committee does not resolve the current political and constitutional crisis. Those who run Nigeria are deeply divided about what to do about Yar'Adua, and many in the Muslim North continue to be uneasy about its potential marginalization by Jonathan even while others look for a legal and constitutional resolution.

Disagreement over who should be Jonathan's vice president once Yar'Adua leaves further complicates the political crisis. Turai may be trying to negotiate Yar'Adua's exit from the presidency in return for ruling party selection of one of her two sons-in-law (currently the governors of Kebbi and Bauchi states) as Jonathan's vice president. And her behavior suggests that she is prepared to fight for the interests of her family. Even before Yar'adua's November hospitalization, there were signs that Turai was seeking to secure the ruling party's presidential nomination for elections in 2011 for one of them. A new vice president must be approved by majority vote in both houses of the National Assembly.

However, there is no consensus on how to get Yar'Adua to leave office and no potential vice president candidate who commands enough support in both houses to secure the position. Furthermore, despite Wednesday's assertion by the ruling party that Jonathan cannot run in 2011, it remains to be seen whether Jonathan would actually step aside to allow the new vice president to have the ruling party's nomination.

Even more disconcerting is that the Nigerian military appears as splintered as the rest of the federal government. Some Nigerians believe that military coups allegedly planned for December 31 and January 15 were forestalled only for fear of western, especially U.S., condemnation. Many Nigerians also believe credibly that Senate President David Mark, himself a retired general, a month later pushed the National Assembly to establish Jonathan as acting president, even if extra-legally, to forestall a junior officer coup. Moreover, Yar'Adua's secretive return to Abuja on February 24, apparently orchestrated by Turai's cabal, resembled a military counter-coup in style. It involved approximately 300 troops and artillery deployed throughout the city at the order of the commander of the Brigade of Guards and the chief of army staff. The chief of defense staff, the most senior officer in the military, was not informed in advance, nor was the acting president, who is the commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Nigeria. Furthermore, the following day the State Security Service trashed Jonathan's office and guards were placed in front of the presidential chair to prevent him from occupying it, according to the Nigerian press. Since then, surely to reach out to the military, Jonathan has asked it to provide him with an aide-de-camp, to replace his current one supplied by the Nigerian police.

Many Nigerians for years have wanted radical change as the country's political and economic situation has deteriorated and as they have become increasingly alienated from the political elite. More immediately, they are bound to view with distaste the current histrionics of Abuja, which is thoroughly covered by Nigeria's scrappy and mostly independent media. Presumably, popular anger is shared by some of the mid-level officers in the military, which suggests David Mark's alleged anxiety may not be misplaced. In any event, paralyzed and divided government is the order of the day in one of Africa's most important countries.