I’m mostly offline this week, as I’m still healing from surgery and finding that reading and emailing are very painful… but one of the stories I haven’t been able to tear myself away from is the tale of Nigeria’s missing president.
Since late November, Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua has been in Saudi Arabia, receiving medical treatment. Fair enough. When he “won” a rigged election in 2007, rumors swirled that he was in ill health – during the campaign, he challenged political opponents to a game of squash to demonstrate that he’s a vital, healthy guy. But Yar’Adua hasn’t just been out of the country – he’s been incommunicado, out of touch with his cabinet and closest aides. As a result, Africa’s most populous nation has been functionally leaderless since November, a situation that’s pretty hard for me to comprehend.
One of the newspapers I follow most closely in Nigeria is 234Next, which has a track record of breaking interesting stories and a terrific online presence. On January 10, the paper reported that Yar’Adua had suffered serious brain damage and no longer recognized his close aides. They reported that the first lady was closely controlling access to the President and preventing journalists from understanding the depth of his illness. Two days later, Yar’Adua gave an interview via telephone to the BBC, announcing that he was receiving treatment in Saudi Arabia and recovering. 234Next questioned the authenticity of the voice on the tape and demanded to be allowed to send a journalist to visit the president.
Now the newspaper is claiming victory, as Nigeria’s National Assembly voted on Tuesday to make Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the acting president. It’s about time – ethnic violence has been flaring in Jos, militants continue to attack oil infrastructure, and Nigerians around the world are coping with the increased scrutiny that comes with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt at downing a US-bound airplane.
Dialog in the Nigerian blogosphere helps explain the balancing act that is Nigerian politics. Northerners – majority Muslim – and Southerners – majority Christian – have historically shared power by alternating who controlled the presidency. With a Northern, Muslim president (Yar’Adua), Nigeria has a Southern, Christian VP, Jonathan Goodluck. (It’s worth noting that Yar’Adua and Goodluck have both been characterized as marginal, obscure figures in Nigerian politics until their recent elevation to power. Yar’Adua was essentially appointed by former president Obasanjo, and Goodluck’s father was a respected politician, but his son was far less well known.) Some northerners are upset that power – which traditionally oscilates between the north and south – is now in the hands of a southerner, out of turn. Some are questioning the legality of the move that put Goodluck in power. And there’s a frantic scramble to see who’ll be Goodluck’s deputy, because it’s believed that the new acting VP will be a strong candidate for the presidency in 2011.
Two things have struck me about the situation in Nigeria. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I am that there’s been so little international media attention to the Nigerian crisis. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Nigeria to African stability. It’s a huge nation, incredibly powerful in terms of natural resources, struggling through the religious and ethnic tensions that face many African nations. I would imagine that if Silvio Berlusconi suddenly disappeared from the world stage, there would be daily updates in global media. (Remember what happened when South Carolina governor Mark Sanford disappeared for less than a week?)
Second, I’m amazed by the resilience that Nigerian governmental institutions have shown in the face of this crisis. It’s easy to imagine military leaders taking advantage of the power vacuum to seize authority, as has happened so often in Nigerian history. In a country – both fairly and unfairly – associated with corruption, crime and misgovernment, it’s possible to imagine dismal scenarios emerging from this situation. Instead, elected representatives acted to ensure stability, put in place a stable transition and deal with circumstances that would challenge any nation. As blogger Solomon Sydelle put it on Nigerian Curiosity, “February 9th [the day Goodluck took power] could possibly go down in history as a day when democratic political measures where used to take Nigeria one step further down the path to becoming a true democratic nation.”
Here’s hoping a Goodluck presidency shows that Nigeria is a nation ruled by laws, not by the whim of those who can seize power… and that the rest of the world sees that Nigeria is a country coping with a tough situation and handling it with grace and stability.