John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
Nigerian political life has been turned upside down by President Umaru Yar'adua's secretive return to Nigeria's capital on February 23. His unexpected homecoming raises the prospect of a power struggle between the coterie that surrounds him, led by his wife, Turai Yar'adua, and much of the old-line Nigerian political establishment that could upset Nigeria's fragile stability.
In mid-February, the National Assembly designated Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as acting president, ending the void in presidential authority that dates from late November when President Yar'adua went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. However, in doing so, the National Assembly exceeded its constitutional mandate, though it reflected a limited consensus with the Nigerian political elite and has been supported by the U.S. and UK governments and the African Union.
A prominent Nigerian journalist (NigerianVillageSquare) labeled Jonathan's acting presidency as a "democratic coup." However, a consensus began to emerge among the governing elites in favor of regularizing Jonathan's position, in constitutional terms, as a permanent solution to the succession crisis. To that end, a high-powered delegation over the weekend traveled to Saudi Arabia to determine whether Yar'adua's health would permit him to resume his official duties. If not, Yar'adua could be removed from office, and Jonathan would become the president, according to the constitution. That delegation never saw Yar'adua because he had already departed for Nigeria when they arrived.
Yar'adua's return to Abuja shocked the country's movers and shakers. His plane arrived unannounced, after dark, parked at the far edge of the runway, and was immediately surrounded by troops from the Brigade of Guards, the president's personal guard force, as he was loaded into a waiting ambulance. He was then taken to Aso Villa, the official residence of the president, also heavily guarded. As of this writing, no credible witnesses have actually seen President Yar'adua.
The State Security Service ransacked Jonathan's office February 24. Rumors freely circulated that Jonathan and perhaps other members of the cabinet were going to resign. However, also on February 24, a Villa spokesman announced that Goodluck Jonathan would meet with Turai Yar'adua that evening.
The press reported (Next) that soldiers were stationed in front of the president's chair in the Presidential Chamber to prevent Acting President Goodluck Jonathan from sitting in it. The secretary of the government also announced that the federal executive council (cabinet) meeting scheduled for February 24 was postponed. Nevertheless, Jonathan did meet with the cabinet, but in his office, not the Presidential Chamber.
Subsequently, President Yar'adua's spokesman issued a statement on his behalf thanking the nation for its prayers during his illness and affirming that Vice President Goodluck Jonathan will continue to "oversee affairs of state." The statement also thanked the governors, the National Assembly, the judiciary, former heads of state, the armed forces, and the security services for "their roles in maintaining order and stability during his absence." These elements engineered the National Assembly's designation of Jonathan as acting president.
But while Jonathan remains nominally in charge, there is uncertainty about whether he will be able to govern and whether this will set the stage for a struggle between Yar'adua's inner circle and the traditional power brokers who moved to designate Jonathan acting president.
The future role of the army is also uncertain. The Brigade of Guards, led by a Northern Muslim brigadier general, played a supportive role in Yar'adua's secretive arrival. However, former chiefs of state Babangida and Obasanjo, and Senate President David Mark, all three retired generals with links to the troops, supported Jonathan's acting presidency. The chief of army staff, Lieutenant General Abdulrahman Dambazau, a Northern Muslim from Yar'adua's home state of Katsina, was one of those warning as early as January against any military intervention. Seeping slowly into the press is speculation that senior military officers helped godfather the National Assembly's designation of Jonathan as acting president to stave off a mid-level military coup. It is by no means certain that the military will be united on the issues surrounding Yar'adua's return.
Nevertheless, the nation's laws are on Yar'adua's side now that he has returned, given that the National Assembly's designation of Jonathan went beyond the constitution. For now, the leadership void remains, unless Turai Yar'adua and her coterie try to fill it. If so, the danger is a power struggle between them and a very powerful band of politicians and ex-military figures. Meanwhile, if blogs are an indication, the people of Nigeria are watching with increasing disgust at the antics of the political class.