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Nigeria's Leadership Vacuum

Author: John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies
December 30, 2009

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President Umaru Yar'adua appears likely to leave office soon. Nigeria's king makers--the country's competing and cooperating power brokers--seem poised to reassign presidential duties and responsibilities elsewhere because the ailing president can no longer exercise them. According to the Nigerian press, Nigeria's attorney general has already written to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan saying that he should assume presidential powers. Jonathan has reportedly refused, probably out of fear of offending the clique surrounding Yar'adua.  Whatever the case, a void in executive authority has existed since Yar'adua was hospitalized a month ago. However, the recent arrest of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab following a failed bombing attempt on a U.S. airliner appears to have forced Jonathan's hand. The latter has ordered the Nigerian security services to cooperate fully with the United States, in effect a presidential decision.

Yar'adua's removal from office would result in a political and constitutional crisis for the United States' most important strategic partner in Africa and one of its largest suppliers of oil. Though Yar'adua has been ill since he assumed the presidency in 2007, there is no consensus yet among the king makers about what to do upon his removal from office. The most positive option is that they will reach a constitutional agreement, and the country will limp toward national elections scheduled for 2011. The worst is that the competing factions will struggle among themselves without resolution, and the army will step in and establish a military government, though with a civilian facade.

Compromise will become more difficult because of Abdulmutallab's failed terrorist act, which highlights the existence of radical Islam in northern Nigeria that Christians--the country's population is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians--have long been skittish about. Power brokers from other parts of Nigeria now have a rationale for assuming a harder line on the continued reservation of the presidency for the north. Already, a spokesman for a Niger Delta militant group is saying that "world peace" is threatened by Islamic militants covertly supported by northern elites who assume ruling Nigeria is their birthright.

That Abdulmutallab is the son of a rich member of the northern elite will lend credence to this claim in other parts of the country, despite his father having sounded the alarm. Abdulmutallab's father, Alhaji Umaru Mutallab is a classic example of the traditional northern elite opposed by Islamic radicals seeking to establish a "just, Islamic society," and by others who resent northern domination of the country since independence in 1960. Until this month, Mutallab was chairman of one of Nigeria's biggest banks and has long been a business associate of the current oil minister, also a northern Muslim. He has also twice served as a minister in northern-dominated military governments.

A Declining Regional Profile

The likely succession challenges come after a period during which President Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar'adua's predecessor, had successfully coordinated and promoted an African response to a host of regional crises, including those in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Cote d'Ivoire. During the current president's periodic illnesses, Nigeria has cut back on its diplomatic activism, leaving a void that will be hard to fill. While under almost any scenario short of national Armageddon, Nigerian oil will continue to flow, it could be subject to interruption by competing militant factions. Reflecting current instability, international oil company investment needed to increase production is already drying up.

Compromise [on succession] will become more difficult because of Abdulmutallab’s failed terrorist act, which highlights the existence of radical Islam in northern Nigeria that Christians--the country’s population is evenly divided between Muslims and Christians--have long been skittish about.

Though not codified, a principle exists among the elites that the presidency and vice presidency rotates between the north and south, between Muslim and Christian. Obasanjo was a Christian from near Lagos, and his vice president was a Muslim from the north. As his presidential successor, Obasanjo selected Yar'adua, a Muslim Fulani from the north who was the surviving brother of his deputy when he was military dictator in the 1970s. Obasanjo also selected Yar'adua's vice president, Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw from the Delta.

By the letter of Nigeria's constitution, Yar'adua's departure from office should make Jonathan the chief of state. A Jonathan presidency would, however, deprive the Muslim north of its current share of power.  Under present circumstances, it is not clear that the north would accept a Jonathan presidency, even for an interim period. It is also uncertain that the Christian south would accept Jonathan stepping aside. Even before Christmas Day, resentment had been building in other parts of the country at northern efforts to exclude Jonathan from the presidency in the event of Yar'adua's death in office.

Underway in the main cities of Abuja and Lagos is a king-maker scramble to resolve the succession issue to prevent Nigeria from splitting apart. A possible compromise would allow Jonathan to fill the presidency until the 2011 elections. A vice president would be appointed from the Muslim north to serve with Jonathan, although under what authority or by whom is unclear. Agreement among king makers in the north on an interim vice president will be difficult because that person would almost certainly become president in 2011 under Nigeria's system of elections, which are rigged in favor of the ruling party.

Military Intervention Concerns

The stakes are high. Capture of the state means access to oil revenue, which the Nigerian press is estimating at up to $100 billion a year. Oil revenue has kept the competing Nigerian elites within the "system," as well as providing most of Nigeria's budget and foreign exchange. Continued access to oil revenue will be a powerful incentive for the king makers to find a way out of the current crisis, despite their regional, ethnic, and religious divisions.

Nigeria's military, though much weakened, continues to regard itself as the ultimate custodian of the state. If the current crisis spins out of control, the Nigerian military is likely to intervene, possibly with a nominal civilian head. It would justify itself by saying it would prepare for elections and deal with "extremism" in the Niger Delta and, following the Abdulmutallab incident, in the north. Though the security procedures at Lagos's Murtala Muhammed Airport have long been criticized by international observers, they were approved as recently as November 2009 by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, only a month before Abdulmutallab's departure. Nevertheless, the military could also use alleged breaches in security procedures as justification for military intervention because they illustrate the government's alleged incompetence.

Nigeria's history shows that once the military assumes power, it is reluctant to relinquish it.  For this reason, king-maker acquiescence to a coup would be a last resort. A question for Washington policymakers would be whether any civilian and constitutional fig leaf were sufficient to prevent the kicking-in of legally mandated U.S. sanctions against military coups.

In the meantime, Washington and Nigeria's other friends should continue to emphasize the importance of the constitution and the rule of law with respect to the succession crisis.  Privately, they should also warn of the consequences for Nigeria of a military coup.  They should continue to call for the reforms necessary for free, fair, and credible elections in 2011. For example, legislation making the Independent National Electoral Commission truly independent of the executive with its own funding would be an important sign that the government is committed to genuine electoral reform. Nevertheless, the reality is that other governments will have limited influence over how the succession crisis plays out.

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