Jan 6, 2010 | 18:19 GMT

8 mins read

Nigeria: An Ailing President and the Problem of Succession

Nigeria's president has been in Saudi Arabia for six weeks receiving medical treatment, but has refused to grant his vice president the temporary powers of the presidency. This issue has brought into the open a clash between two agreements that dictate presidential succession in Nigeria: an unwritten 1999 agreement to rotate power between north and south against the protocol outlined in the country's constitution.
Political tensions have grown steadily in Nigeria for the past six weeks, as President Umaru Yaradua seeks medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. Yaradua, who left Nigeria Nov. 23, has not been heard from publicly since being admitted to the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Jeddah after experiencing chest pains associated with a condition known as pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining around the heart. The status of his health remains unknown, as is any potential date for his return to Nigeria. Political rivals have called for Yaradua to either resign or cede temporary powers of the presidency to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, both of which Yaradua's camp has rejected. The question of presidential succession — a potentially explosive issue in Nigeria — pits the country's constitutional requirements against the unwritten power-sharing agreement between Nigeria's north and south, which has governed the political situation since the transition to democracy in 1999. Since that transition, Nigeria has been ruled as a de facto one-party state. The People's Democratic Party (PDP) dominates Nigerian politics, with PDP governors in power in 28 of the country's 36 states, and PDP politicians holding the posts of president, vice president and other high-ranking national offices. However, even within the PDP, there exist separate loyalties that run along ethnic and geographic lines. The rough borders of modern-day Nigeria were established by the British in 1914. The country is divided into six official administrative regions (known as "geopolitical zones") and two de facto halves: the predominately Muslim north and the predominately Christian south. Within the north-south division are several tribes, the most significant being the Yoruba, Igbo and Ijaw in the south, and the Hausa and Fulani in the north. The most common theme in Nigerian history has been the fear of domination — whether it be domination by the north over the south, the south over the north, or one ethnic group over another (or all the others, for that matter). This fear did not dissipate with the introduction of democracy in 1999. Rather, an unwritten agreement was reached among the PDP elite that aimed to ensure power would be rotated between different zones (and thereby among the ethnic groups). Power-sharing was a way to maintain national unity, and national unity was seen by the northerners (who had dominated the government during military rule) as imperative to keeping the oil-rich southern states economically connected to the hinterland. It made sense that the first southerner entrusted with the presidency in 1999, Olusegun Obasanjo, was effectively one of the north's own (Obasanjo was a Christian from the Yoruba ethnic group in the country's southwest, but was also a former general and military dictator). But even with Obasanjo's military background, northerners wanted to ensure that in due course, they would be able to put one of their own in the president's mansion at Aso Rock. According to this agreement, an open secret in Nigeria, the presidency would rotate every eight years (two terms) between geopolitical zones, flipping between north and south every time a change was made. Obasanjo attempted to upend this agreement by seeking a third term in 2007, but was blocked by rival PDP factions and ended up choosing Yaradua, a Hausa governor in the northern state of Katsina, as his successor. Yaradua's health problems were public knowledge as far back as 2001, when, as governor, he was forced to spend a month in Germany for kidney problems. Since being elected president, Yaradua has sought medical attention abroad at an increased rate. Since March 2007, when he was running for president as the PDP candidate, Yaradua has been forced to leave the country six times (twice to Germany, four times to Saudi Arabia), in addition to having to take a two-week sabbatical from presidential duties to rest in Abuja in January 2009. This latest trip to Jeddah is Yaradua's third trip to Saudi Arabia for medical attention since August 2009. This time, however, the president has been gone for six weeks, roughly twice the length of any of his previous trips since 2007, and he is reportedly being treated for heart problems, rather than a kidney ailment. Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, an Ijaw who hails from the southern Niger Delta region, has attempted to take over executive responsibilities in Nigeria, but has not been officially granted temporary powers, causing several constitutional conundrums. Already the lack of an inaugurated president in the country has created difficulties in authorizing a supplementary budget bill and in swearing in a new chief justice for Nigeria's supreme court, both of which were solved through what appear to be makeshift methods (Yaradua's advisers in Jeddah claim he was able to sign the bill from his bedside, despite rumors that he is incapacitated; Nigeria's attorney general claimed to find a legal provision enabling the outgoing chief justice to swear in his replacement, one day before the deadline). Yaradua (who may not even be conscious at the moment, as he has remained entirely out of the public eye since November) and the northern elite within the PDP have resisted granting Jonathan the powers of the presidency due to fears that should they give it up, and Yaradua does not recover from his sickness, they will be unable to get it back. Losing the presidency to the Ijaw could cost the north a great deal of revenue, as their region is largely agrarian and lacks the vast reserves of crude oil found in the Ijaw's region, the Niger Delta, an area responsible for about 95 percent of Nigerian oil output. Whoever controls the presidency has the ability to control the revenues coming from the Delta, which allows for patronage and power. Nigeria's northerners hold the view that they waited eight years for their turn at the presidency, and have no intention of handing it back to the southerners after less than one term. A transfer of temporary authority, however, appears to be exactly what Nigeria's 1999 constitution requires under the present circumstances. According to an article in the constitution, cited by those who wish to see Jonathan take power, Yaradua is obliged to write to the heads of the two chambers of parliament if he is unable to fulfill his presidential duties while abroad, so the vice president can take over temporarily. Thus the debate between north and south over whom should be president of Nigeria pits the unwritten power sharing agreement of 1999 against the country's constitution. Nigeria is not known as a country where the rule of law is sacrosanct. The south is simply using the constitution as a tool toward achieving its goal of a return to the presidency. The north, on the other hand, is refusing to budge, believing it is owed the post until 2015 due to the understanding that governs the power-sharing system. Goodluck Jonathan has so far been careful to not appear as if he holds any designs on Yaradua's position, for fear of the possible repercussions should the president recover and return to the country. It is also possible that Jonathan would prefer to wait out his tenure as vice president and make his own run for president in 2015, when the south is due its turn. Jonathan's ties to the Niger Delta (he served as governor of one of the country's leading oil producing states, Bayelsa, prior to being awarded the vice presidency) also raise the prospect that the Movement for the Emancipation for the Niger Delta (MEND), an Ijaw militant group, could come into play at some point during this dispute. MEND has stated that Jonathan owes his position to them, indicating extensive connections between the two. While Jonathan is not MEND's ultimate godfather, he does have a working relationship with the militant group, and would be able to use his influence to trigger attacks against oil installations if he sought additional leverage. While Yaradua's inner circle will attempt to shield the public (and more importantly, political rivals) from any negative news on his condition, it is certain that contingency plans are being formulated by the PDP elites — both north and south — as well as by the military (which is still dominated by northerners). It is unlikely, however, that anything short of death will force Yaradua to cede the powers of the acting presidency to Jonathan. Though there are lawsuits pending which call for Jonathan to be granted the powers of acting president, the worst-case scenario for the northerners is that Jonathan would briefly hold the presidency in the run-up to the 2011 elections. It is possible that when those elections come around, the Ijaw (and notably, MEND), so close to the presidency for the first time, could try to take advantage of their unique historical moment and make a push to take power in 2011. The northerners will not allow this to happen without a fight. Regardless of what becomes of Yaradua, they will view the 2011 presidency as rightfully theirs, and will do everything in their power to make sure that the unwritten agreement of 1999 trumps anything prescribed in the constitution.

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