Nigeria's Crisis of Leadership

With a population of more than 150 million, the second largest economy on the continent, and millions of barrels of oil produced a day, Nigeria is like the AIG of Africa: it's just too big to fail.

Yet fail it might, if serious corrections are not made to its current political crisis, where a power vacuum is threatening to undo the tenuous progress made in recent years.

Nigeria is currently without a leader, as President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua flew to Saudi Arabia in late November for treatment of his kidney ailments and a serious heart condition, and hasn't been heard from since. The caretakers left behind in control of the government have not been able to counter the rumor mills and conflicting reports of the president's health. One day we expect his imminent return to power, while the next day he is supposedly taking a turn for the worse.

After nine days of Fidel Castro-like silence outside of the country, a statement signed by 50 prominent Nigerians, including Speaker of the House Alhaji Aminu Masari, called for the president's resignation under Article 144 of the Constitution, and for power to be handed over to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

When a leader is ill and absent, a country cannot function, and for Nigeria, the costs have been very high. Yar'Adua's illness has prevented him from attending the United Nations General Assembly, where he would have had the opportunity to privately meet with President Barack Obama. His approval of the state budget has been repeatedly delayed because of health issues, while infighting and disobedience within state ministries has proliferated. Worst of all, the president's low profile has allowed for widespread abuses of power for personal enrichment and settling of scores.

Long before this current hospital visit, the president's illness had become Nigeria's illness. Since coming into power in May 2007 following the administration of Olusegun Obasanjo, the basic administration of public affairs has faltered, while the reform movement has been stamped out. Record high oil prices haven't made a dent in the poverty level, nor helped complete any significant public project of improvement. Numerous infrastructure projects for railroads and electricity generation were bungled and canceled, while discretionary spending was returned to the regional authorities (under Obasanjo, a centralized stabilization fund had been created to handle budget shortfalls).

Corruption, the unfortunate bane of Nigeria, has significantly worsened under Yar'Adua. During an official state visit in August, Sec. of State Hillary Clinton remarked that the country was experiencing "a failure of government at the federal, state and local level," adding that a "lack of transparency and accountability has eroded the legitimacy of the government and contributed to the rise of groups that embrace violence."

There are also moves to pass a new oil reform bill, which many see as a mechanism to funnel rents towards Yar'Adua's re-election campaign fund. The legislation, which will allow the government to renegotiate old contracts and impose higher costs on foreign investors, is already causing damaging uncertainty and stalled projects.

The national mood has turned sour. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka says that Nigeria has become "compromised" by corruption, and is the "laughing stock" of the region. The popular blogger Salisu Suleiman recently wrote, "When Umaru wakes up from his soulless, shackled sleep, say to him that the ship of state is on fire and that he should scamper for dear life. Tell him that for two years, the alarm bells have been blaring, the voices of 140 million compatriots screaming, and the entire world joining to shake him awake, but only got the stony silence of indifference."

Before Yar'Adua came into office, Nigeria enjoyed a few years of tremendous success in the war against corruption through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), under the leadership of the highly respected Nuhu Ribadu.

Now that Ribadu has been forced out (and survived two assassination attempts), and many of the biggest investigations have been dropped (including impunity for the famous James Ibori), the EFCC has been completely discredited and turned into an instrument of corruption. Under Ribadu, the EFCC prosecuted thousands of cases. Under the new chief, Farida Waziri, the EFCC pursues at best a dozen cases only with the permission of the presidency, most of which are political prosecutions. It is a tremendous disappointment, for both Nigeria's citizens as well as international partners, to see these institutions of justice become overrun by incompetence and graft.

One false case being pursued by the EFCC is against the respected former Minister of Abuja, Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, a client whom I represent in his fight against the state's campaign of persecution. In a 56-page White Paper I recently authored, the reality of the abuse of process and criminal conduct of the Nigerian state is presented, arguing that the persecution of El-Rufai is designed to eliminate him as a political competitor to the Yar'Adua administration.

Nigeria may be deep into a political crisis today, but there is no reason not to have optimism for tomorrow that course can be reversed. Having made many visits to Nigeria beginning in the 1970s, I have always been impressed by the perseverance and resourcefulness of its people. The country has an incredible class of potential future leaders, many of whom have ideas on how to build a democratic, transparent, and lawful future - but their influence is limited so long as the country remains in stasis.

One hopes that President Yar'Adua recovers very soon, and is able to return to his duties of office to correct the abuses of law which have occurred. If he is unable for whatever reason, it would be his honorable duty to uphold the constitution and appoint the vice president. For the rest of the world, Nigeria's political crisis must be watched very, very carefully in the coming weeks and months, for truly its failure would powerfully impact us all.