Mr. Yar’Adua was an unlikely president. While he came from an aristocratic family in northern Nigeria â€” his father was a minister in one of the first postindependence governments â€” his political prospects were thought to have been overshadowed by those of his older brother, Gen. Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who was second in command in one of the military governments that ruled in the 1970s.
The younger Yar’Adua took a university degree â€” the first Nigerian president to do so â€” worked as a lecturer and went into business. He became governor of Katsina state and was selected by then President Olusegun Obasanjo to head the PDP ticket in the 2007 elections. Mr. Obasanjo might have hoped that he could continue to rule through his successor.
Mr. Yar’Adua won the ballot in an election that was almost universally condemned as fraudulent. Nonetheless, the new president promised to rid Nigeria of endemic corruption, implement the rule of law, end the violence that impeded oil production â€” the country’s principle source of revenue â€” and improve the daily lives of ordinary citizens. While few doubted his intent, he failed on all three counts.
Some blame his frail health. Mr. Yar’Adua had been traveling abroad secretly for a decade to treat kidney ailments. His weakness enabled his retinue, led by his wife, to exercise power. The president himself conceded that he lived in a “gilded cage.” Last year his illness worsened and he left for Saudi Arabia for treatment. His entourage closed ranks and refused to issue reports on his status or to hand over power to Mr. Jonathan, the vice president. Amid growing anger at the silence and worries about the uncertainty of who was in charge, Mr. Jonathan took the reins of state in February, prompting Mr. Yar’Adua’s secret return. He never again met the public.
While there are no doubts about Mr. Jonathan’s right to assume the presidency, the question is what he will do next year. Nigeria is deeply divided: The North is predominantly Muslim; the South, Christian. The ruling PDP has worked out a power-sharing formula, called “the zoning policy,” by which the presidency will rotate between the North and South every eight years. Mr. Yar’Adua ruled for less than four years, so Muslim politicians believe that they have the right to pick the candidate in next year’s ballot. Since Mr. Jonathan is from the south, if he decides to run after using his year in office to build a base, he risks unleashing a civil war.
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, with the vast majority of its 150 million people living in dire circumstances. That is remarkable in itself since Nigeria is the world’s eighth-largest oil exporter. Despite this status, ordinary people have been unable to enjoy the economic fruits. The result has been various insurgencies throughout the country, the most enduring of which is in the Niger Delta, where rebel groups have been attacking oil facilities and kidnapping workers to back their demand for independence.
In an attempt to spur production and generate money that could be devoted to the region â€” the rebel attacks had cut production in half â€” Mr. Yar’Adua declared an amnesty that delivered a shaky peace. At the same time, though, there have been other incidents of ethnic and religious violence resulting in hundreds of deaths.
Mr. Jonathan backs his predecessor’s agenda. He, too, wants to end the corruption, install rule of law and end the violence that cripples Nigeria. He has promised free and fair elections next year. But ethnic divisions, particularly those within the PDP, threaten to reverse the fragile gains that have been made. Some within the party dislike the Niger Delta deal because they fear it is a device to channel money to the region’s gangs in anticipation of next year’s ballot.
Mr. Jonathan must carry on. The tainted ballot of 2007 has focused international attention on Nigeria’s elections. Violence in the oil-producing regions intensifies the spotlight. Failure to end the corruption and ensure a more equitable distribution of the country’s wealth could stretch Nigeria to the breaking point.