Nigeria is in the midst of an unnecessary political crisis with potentially dangerous consequences. On 23 November, the country was informed that President Yar’Adua had gone into hospital in Saudi Arabia to treat an acute inflammation of the heart. He has not returned to his duties and the constitutional provisions for taking care of business in his absence have not been respected.
This is not the first time the sickly president has been medically evacuated from the country. At the height of the presidential campaigns in 2007, he collapsed and was flown to a German hospital for what his spin-doctors claimed was only a common cold. Towards the end of 2009, Yar’Adua undertook three medical trips in four months, thereby missing important international engagements in Brazil and the UN. It is widely speculated that the president suffers from Churg-Strauss syndrome, a blood-vessel inflammation disorder capable of compromising vital body organs.
President Yar’Adua’s absence has bred anxiety among the citizenry and intrigue in the political elite. Anxiety arising from lack of official information on the state of the president’s health and widespread and repeated rumours of his death or «brain death» have not been assuaged by the clumsy and desperate attempts of his political cronies to play fast and loose with rules and institutional procedures. Attempts to use the Abuja courts to subvert the constitution have also attracted public hostility. Nigeria’s new democracy, fragile at the best of times, is being subjected to unprecedented uncertainty and stress.
The constitution stipulates that in case of such absences, the president should write to the national assembly, which then appoints the vice-president as acting president. This has not been done because the sickly president, who has failed to come clean on his state of health, is fearful that he may not regain his position. Another section of the constitution empowers a majority of the cabinet to ask the assembly to transfer the president’s powers to his deputy. So far, the cabinet seems to have put its loyalty to the man above loyalty to the country. But the vacuum created by the long absence has affected governance. The swearing in of a new chief justice was one of the president’s duties that suffered. The unprecedented and dubious procedure by which a sitting chief justice swore in his successor has compromised one of few respected institutions in the country. There has been no concerted response to the aftermath of the attempted Christmas bombing in which a Nigerian was involved. Major crises in neighbouring Guinea and Niger, which the president should have attended to as the head of the regional body, have festered unaddressed.
The worst consequence of the president’s absence is the strain on the fragile institutions of the country. Banking and industry leaders complain that business confidence has plummeted. The cabinet and the national assembly flounder about with no solution to offer an anxious citizenry. A tiny political cabal seems to be calling the shots. At its core is allegedly the «gang of four», made up of the president’s wife and three unelected courtiers. Murmurs of military restlessness have been heard and ethnic and regional sentiments about powersharing are being deliberately stoked. A tiny minority of northern politicians argue that the southern vice-president cannot assume a «northern» presidency, while some southern politicians decry the abuse of the constitution for regionalist interests.
There is growing realisation in Nigeria that the real problem is that the president and his cronies are putting their narrow personal interests ahead of respect for the constitution. This is gravely disappointing, coming from a president who has laid claim to uphold the rule of law. Initial sympathy for President Yar’Adua’s plight is fast turning to contempt on Nigerian streets.
Abdul Raufu Mustapha, a Nigerian who teaches African Politics at the Department of International Development, University of Oxford.