Leaderless Nigeria could spin out of control
Leaderless Nigeria could spin out of control
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Fighting among Boko Haram Splinters Rages On
Op-Ed / Africa 3 minutes

Leaderless Nigeria could spin out of control

Nigerians have not seen their president for more than two months and tensions are mounting, with huge security implications for the oil-producing giant and the wider region. If Abuja does not resolve the impasse over its leadership and return governance to a clear constitutional track very soon, it will spell disaster.

Even at the best of times, good governance in Africa’s most populous state is rare. Public officials feel little compulsion to respect the constitution or respond to citizens’ demands. Governments tend to be long on promises, chronically short on performance.

As a system of corruption and impunity limits the central government’s capacity to manage and resolve conflicts, violence continually simmers in the Niger delta and erupts recurrently in the north, as riots in the city of Jos in January made all too clear.

But the current constitutional crisis multiplies the country’s troubles tenfold. President Umaru Yar’Adua’s long hospitalisation in Saudi Arabia since late November, his failure to hand over power to Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president, and the government’s deception of the public on the true state of his health have created serious threats to security and peace in Nigeria and further afield in West Africa.

First, the leadership crisis created by Mr Yar’Adua’s absence is deepening Nigeria’s north/south political rivalry. The conflict between constitutional provisions that make Mr Jonathan, a southerner, the successor in the event of the president’s incapacitation, and the political agreement that brought Mr Yar’Adua, a northerner, to power, carry the risk of escalating tensions along the country’s chief political faultline.

Second, the Niger delta peace process is in danger of unravelling. The government’s programme for rehabilitating and retraining delta militants has stalled. Attacks on oil installations have resumed after a long break and criminal gangs are once again seizing foreign oil workers for ransom. On Saturday the main militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, announced an end to a three-month ceasefire. The signs could not be more ominous.

Third, accountability has taken a holiday. Because it is not formally answerable to the vice-president, the Federal Executive Council – the cabinet of federal ministers – is acting without supervision and possibly bending the rules. State spending continues under a dubiously signed supplementary budget that runs counter to previous presidential pledges.

The growing public perception that corruption has accelerated and that nobody can call anybody to order leads to the fourth threat: if the constitutional confusion deepens, ambitious military officers have a pretext to stage a coup, erasing the country’s democratic gains.

Fifth, the lack of Nigerian leadership in the region, in particular through the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), has slowed efforts at resolving the problems in Guinea and Niger. Failure to sustain peace and democracy efforts could lead to a deterioration of the political and security situations in both countries.

Sixth, mass protests initiated by opposition leaders and civil society organisations on January 12 could degenerate into violence and state repression. Though demonstrators and police have co-operated to an admirable and almost unprecedented degree to keep protests peaceful, the longer these mass events continue the greater the risk of a clash with security forces.

Avoiding these threats must begin with a return to constitutional order. Nigeria’s Senate has now called upon Mr Yar’Adua to comply with the constitutional provision that requires the president to inform the National Assembly when he is “proceeding on vacation or otherwise incapable of discharging the functions of his office”.

The president should respect this. Members of bodies such as the National Council of State, which includes all the country’s former leaders, civilian and military, should prevail upon him to do so. With that action, Mr Yar’Adua would automatically and formally cede presidential authority to Mr Jonathan.

If Mr Yar’Adua is unfit to make such a decision, it must be taken by others. Unfortunately, the Executive Council seems to be moving in the opposite direction, passing a resolution last week claiming the president is fit, apparently without any medical input whatsoever. The Council’s position is clearly out of step with the contention of most Nigerians, now expressed through numerous channels daily, that Mr Yar’Adua has not been able to provide any leadership since he left the country in November.

The next days and weeks will determine whether Nigeria’s politicians are able to restore constitutional order. For the sake of the country – and the whole of West Africa – Nigeria’s friends must insist that all parties, including the military, respect the constitution and its provisions for managing this kind of crisis. In the longer term, the Nigerian people must, through the constitutional review process, decide for themselves what succession arrangements truly reflect their political sensitivities, in order to avoid unhealthy tensions in the future.


Former President & CEO
Ayo Obe

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