Nigeria's National Assembly voted February 9 to make Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the country's acting president until President Umaru Musa Yar'adua resumes his duties or dies, ending the vacuum in executive authority since President Yar'adua entered a Saudi hospital in November.
The assembly's vote shows that Nigeria's rival political elites have reached a fragile compromise, even though it violates the unwritten but hitherto sacrosanct principle that the presidency alternate between the Muslim north and the Christian south. Since 2007, it has been the north's turn for the presidency, and Yar'adua is a northern Muslim. Jonathan, however, is a southern Christian.
This compromise became possible because of the northern elite's disunity. Concern about ethnic and religious conflict in the north and the resumption of militant attacks on oil installations in the Delta also played a crucial role, causing anxiety that the army might step in. It is widely believed in Nigeria that military coups almost occurred on December 31, 2009, and January 15, 2010. The perception that Jonathan is unlikely to challenge elite interests also probably facilitated agreement to his interim presidency.
Though the leadership void has been filled by a peaceful political process, it is not constitutional or legal. The president of the Nigeria Bar Association and others observe (DailyTrust) that the assembly does not have the constitutional authority to confer an acting presidency temporarily on the vice president. This illegality raises the possibility that any decision Jonathan makes in his new capacity may someday be challenged in the courts. More immediately, it remains to be seen whether Jonathan's assumption of power will be challenged legally or otherwise by Yar'adua's circle, which is essentially out in the cold after only thirty months of power. Jonathan has already shuffled Michael Aondoakaa, Yar'adua's powerful attorney general, into a lesser cabinet post.
Opponents reject the claim that there was no other way out of the impasse. They argue, for example, that the National Assembly has the authority to impeach the president. Yar'adua's prolonged absence from the country and inability or refusal to communicate with the federal government provided the basis for impeachment. If Yar'adua had been removed in that way, Jonathan would then have become president legally and constitutionally. That did not happen, to the chagrin of many Nigerians seeking to establish the rule of law.
As would be expected after an extra-legal change of presidents, Jonathan's initial presidential speech on February 9 asserted the constitutionality of the assembly's vote and promised free and fair elections in 2011. He also promised to address the grievances of the oil-rich Delta. However, Jonathan is not a dynamic political leader. Up to now, he has shown little inclination or ability to counter the elite interests necessary to move forward the reform agenda now dead in the water. Yar'adua's weak presidency is likely to be followed by an even weaker Jonathan one, with the latter enjoying not even the former's fig leaf of legitimacy derived from rigged presidential elections. On February 10, Standard & Poor observed that Jonathan's succession was only a short-term solution to a continuing constitutional crisis.
Nevertheless, in his native Delta, armed militants may give Jonathan a short-term honeymoon. If so, over the next few weeks, attacks on oil facilities may diminish, creating an opening for movement on Delta grievances--at least until fighting resumes among militants engaged by rival politicians vying for ruling-party nomination in the run-up to the 2011 elections.
Thus far, public reaction to the change of presidents has been muted, just as it was during the string of bloodless coups in the 1980s and 1990s. Now as then, none of the Nigerian leadership generates passionate public enthusiasm. Jonathan's succession has been part of an elite game of little relevance to the Nigerian people who are already largely alienated from their government. For most Nigerians, protesting an unconstitutional change in the presidency, like rigged elections, is not worth a police beating.