When Nigeriaâ€™s president Umaru Yarâ€™Adua was rushed to a hospital in Saudi Arabia late last month, nobody expected that the entire government apparatus would grind to a halt in his absence.
- Nigeria’s fuel crisis festers without a president in charge
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Meanwhile, a number of key policy initiatives are withering on the vine.
Rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta, recently promised a new round of peace talks with the government, are complaining of government inaction and talking of scrapping the cease-fire completely. Fuel supplies have fallen short at gas stations, as new government contracts for the independent distributors await the presidentâ€™s signature. A supplemental budget for 2009, to pay for new development programs in the Niger Delta, also awaits the presidentâ€™s approval, as do several court appointments to the Nigerian Supreme Court and Court of Appeals.
Perhaps more worrisome are the talks among northern Nigerian politicians, calling on Yarâ€™Adua to resign so that they can hold new elections and replace Yarâ€™Adua with another northerner, instead of a southerner like Jonathan, who hails from the troubled Niger Delta region.
â€œThe country is already in a serious political crisis and constitutional crisis,â€ says Femi Falana, a senior attorney in Lagos, who has filed a lawsuit to clarify just who is in charge. Any decision that the vice president makes, any contract he approves, and appointment he makes, without that official letter from Yarâ€™Adua, will lack legal authority, he says.
And if patience runs out among the Niger Delta rebels, â€œthen youâ€™ll have a major crisis on your hands.â€
As in the United States, the Nigerian Constitution has a clear policy on what happens when a leader is unable to perform his duties due to illness: power shifts to the vice president, and government continues to function. But in Nigeria, there is an informal political arrangement set up between the countryâ€™s largely Christian south and its Muslim north, to maintain communal peace by alternating power from north to south. After the eight-year rule of former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, only northerners were allowed by political parties to run for president in the 2007 elections. Yarâ€™Adua, a northern governor from Katsina State, was the winner.
Officially, the Nigerian government does continue to function, with Jonathan presiding over cabinet meetings as acting president.
â€œThe Constitution is very clear on this point: The vice president is in charge,â€ says Dora Akunyilu, Minister of Information and Communication, in a brief telephone interview. She then quotes the statement of the Nigerian ambassador in Saudi Arabia, saying, â€œThe doctors will decide when he can leave, they will decide what should be done.â€
While some northern politicians from Yarâ€™Aduaâ€™s own region have called for the president to resign, and for fresh elections to elect a new northern president, Yarâ€™Aduaâ€™s cabinet has stood by him.
“Those who are calling for the president’s resignation are unpatriotic,â€ Olusola Oke, the Peopleâ€™s Democratic Party legal adviser told the Vanguard newspaper. â€œResignation is a voluntary thing and the president should not be coerced.
Yet a growing number of Nigerian politicians are now worried about the lost opportunities of a presidency that lacks full leadership authority. It was the personal intervention of Yarâ€™Adua that started the latest peace negotiations with the Niger Delta rebels, for instance, and Yarâ€™Aduaâ€™s absence has largely meant that the negotiations have stalled.
Some Niger Delta rebels who refused to disarm have already returned to the jungles, according to rebel sources contacted by the Monitor.
â€œThis power vacuum could put the Niger Delta amnesty [and peace process] into danger,â€ says Osita Okechukwu, public spokesman of the Congress of Nigerian Political Parties, an umbrella of opposition parties. â€œThe militants are not waiting for anything. If the projects are not working, they will want to take over immediately, but because of the lack of funds, they may give up.â€
Pat Utomi, who once ran as an independent presidential candidate against Yarâ€™Adua and is now a lecturer at the Lagos Business School, says the only option is to swear in Goodluck Jonathan as president.
â€œTo fail to do so is to signal to [the people of] the region of the vice president – the troubled Niger Delta – that Nigeria is rejecting them,â€ he says. â€œIf that were to happen, the demobilized militants would go straight back to the creeks, and the game would even be turned up a notch.â€