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May 6, 2010 | 02:20 GMT

4 mins read

Nigeria: The Death of the President

PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images
Long-ailing Nigerian President Umaru Yaradua died May 5, bringing to a close any speculation that may have remained regarding a possible return to an active role in government for the former Katsina state governor who won the presidency in 2007. The reality, however, is that Yaradua has been politically dead for some time. Yaradua flew to Saudi Arabia on Nov. 23 to receive medical treatment for a heart condition known as acute pericarditis, and as the duration of his absence stretched from weeks to months, Yaradua gradually ceased to be a factor in the political calculations of any leading members of Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP). Rather, it was the scramble to determine who would succeed him that became the focal point of the PDP. Yaradua's sudden return to the country on Feb. 24, conducted secretly and under the cover of darkness, gave rise to a brief period of anxiety for those who had staked their political fortunes on his deputy, former Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. (Jonathan, by that time, had been recognized by both the National Assembly and the presidential Cabinet as acting President of Nigeria.) Those fears were never realized, however, as Yaradua's return simply led to yet another period of prolonged silence from the president. The main effect of Yaradua's death on Nigerian politics will be rhetorical. Speeches will be given, eulogies delivered and, most importantly, tension will rise over who will win the presidency in the upcoming elections, the top question of the day in sub-Saharan Africa's most populous nation. There exists in Nigeria an open secret regarding how power will be rotated between the country's predominately Muslim north and its predominately Christian south. This deal — sometimes referred to as the "zoning" agreement — was reached between elites within the PDP, the only party to have ruled Nigeria since its transition to democracy in 1999. According to the deal, of which no prescription is made in the Nigerian Constitution, every two terms (or eight years), the presidency will trade off between a northern and southern candidate. Yaradua was not yet through his first term as that northern candidate when he fell sick. Now he is dead, and Jonathan — a southerner from the Niger Delta — will almost certainly ascend to the title of Nigeria's official president. What matters the most, however, is what will happen next, as the term that Jonathan has now inherited fully is set to come to an end in May 2011 at the latest. Indeed, acting President Jonathan has already been functioning as the official president for some time, demonstrating his ability to act as commander in chief by dispatching troops to Jos, the violence-plagued capital of Plateau state, distributing billions of dollars from the country's Excess Crude Account to various state and local governments, meeting with officials from foreign governments (including, notably, U.S. President Barack Obama at the recent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington), dissolving the Cabinet created by Yaradua, bringing in one of his own, and signing into law a record-breaking budget for the 2010 fiscal year. But despite his actions, in terms of actual power, Jonathan is still largely seen as a figurehead president, even by many in his own political base among the ethnic Ijaw of the Niger Delta, as there are behind-the-scenes actors within the PDP who wield significant influence over the course of events in Nigeria. The date for the elections is currently set for April 2011, but a series of impending constitutional amendments make it likely that this date will be moved up even earlier, most likely to January 2011. Jonathan has remained coy on the subject of whether or not he intends to run, as he appears to be feeling out the political environment before taking what would amount to a significant risk. Should Jonathan decide in the end that it is not worth taking the chance of contesting for the presidency in 2011, it could pave the way a strong political future, perhaps with an opportunity to run for the post in 2015. The north, according to the zoning agreement, believes that it is entitled to another term, which will keep it in control of the country's top spot through 2015, and will not back down very easily. The south may see an opportunity to entrench Jonathan in his position, but to challenge the north would be a fight they must calculate as being worth the risk. STRATFOR will continue to monitor the situation in Nigeria closely to try and gain a sense of which way the pendulum might swing.

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