Since traveling to Saudi Arabia in November 2009 seeking treatment for a heart ailment, Nigerian President Umaru Yaradua has been virtually incommunicado. Meanwhile, the name of the game with his supporters in Nigeria has been to delay the handover of power to any successor. And it is likely that the latest mission, to obtain a letter from his bedside in Saudi Arabia explaining the status of his health, is yet another example of the delaying tactic, which likely will continue until the pressure becomes too great.
Vincent Ogbulafor, the national chairman of Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP), announced late Feb. 4 that a PDP delegation will travel to Saudi Arabia Feb. 8 to obtain a much-anticipated letter from Nigerian President Umaru Yaradua describing the state of the Nigerian leader's health. The move is an attempt to placate the Nigerian senate, which passed a resolution Jan. 27 urging Yaradua to write to the National Assembly to clarify the status of his health in accordance with Article 145 of the country's constitution. That resolution was immediately rejected by Nigeria's presidential Cabinet, known as the Federal Executive Council (FEC), which had been tasked by a Jan. 22 federal court ruling to decide whether Yaradua's health problems were grounds for his removal from the presidency. The idea — little more than a rumor at this point — that Yaradua will soon write a letter clarifying the state of his health does not necessarily mean that he will transfer temporary presidential powers to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. (click here to enlarge image) Nigeria's constitution is extremely vague in its prescription for what should be done in situations involving a prolonged absence of the president. But it is laid out relatively clearly in Article 145 of the constitution that should the president be out of the country and physically unable to do his job (known as a "medical vacation," something that Yaradua appears to be taking right now), he must write a letter to the National Assembly officially informing the body. Once transmitted, this letter automatically transfers temporary powers of the presidency to the vice president. What Article 145 does not call for is a letter from the president that assures the National Assembly that he is in good health. In other words, if Yaradua is too sick to continue, he must write to the National Assembly to inform them; if he is fine, he doesn't have to respond at all to calls for him to clarify the state of his health. When a Yaradua aide first announced Feb. 4 that the president was about to write his health-status letter, he was careful to say that Yaradua would do so after "weighing both the senate resolutions and the court rulings wisely." This could have been a way for Yaradua to feign respect for the constitution while not actually caving in to demands that he relinquish power temporarily, as the senate resolution (only one was passed, on Jan. 27) urges him to do. However, the resolution carries no legal authority to compel the president to relinquish power. What does carry such authority is the federal court ruling handed down on Jan. 22 that gave the FEC two weeks to decide whether Yaradua was healthy enough to continue serving as president. The FEC issued its answer — that Yaradua was healthy enough — immediately following the senate resolution, thereby maintaining the status quo. Of course, there is always the possibility that a shift has occurred and that Jonathan is on the verge of receiving acting presidential powers. But it is more likely that the mission to retrieve a letter from Yaradua in Saudi Arabia is yet another ruse on behalf of entrenched interests in the PDP to keep stringing everyone along. Indeed, since November 2009, when Yaradua traveled to Saudi Arabia seeking treatment for a heart ailment, the name of the game among Yaradua's supporters has been to delay. The federal courts, the FEC and all who speak for the president have been intent on postponing any temporary handover of power, and they likely will continue to do so until the pressure within the PDP becomes too great. There have already been signs of this among the main power brokers in the ruling party, most notably on Feb. 3, when a member of the FEC, Minister of Information and Communications Dora Akunyili, drafted a memo urging the Cabinet to be honest about the condition of Yaradua's health and to begin proceedings for the temporary handover of power to Jonathan. Akunyili's memo was met with fierce resistance by cabinet members who owe their positions to the president and who have no interest in rocking the boat by ordering a change at the top (the memo wasn't even allowed onto the agenda of the FEC meeting, and Jonathan himself reportedly refused to endorse it). Recent media reports have indicated that Akunyili is not the only FEC member pushing for Yaradua's removal, but it is clear that this faction has not yet built up enough influence to change the FEC's official stance on the issue. Then there are Nigeria's 36 state governors, who also wield an immense amount of influence in the country. Until recently, the governors have supported continuity of government, but reports of internal divisions began to emerge in media reports Feb. 5. It appears that a north-south split is emerging among the country's governors over whether Yaradua should remain, with southerners pushing for Jonathan and northerners arguing for no change at all. This fissure is understandable when viewed in the context of Nigerian history. There are two systems in place that dictate the way Nigeria is to be governed. One is based on the country's constitution. The other is based on an unwritten agreement between elites from the country's predominately Muslim north and its predominately Christian south, formulated in 1999 (the same year the constitution was written). This agreement — which dictates that the presidency will switch back and forth between the two regions every two terms, meaning every eight years — is an open secret in Nigeria and generally carries more weight than the constitution. Hence, the debate over whether Yaradua or Jonathan should be president at the moment must be analyzed in light of this balance. Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Yoruba and former military dictator of Nigeria, ruled as president from 1999 to 2007, at which point he tapped Yaradua, a Muslim northerner, to succeed him. Yaradua has not yet finished even his first term. In the eyes of the northern elite, his vice president, a Christian southerner, does not deserve to be made president just three years after the torch was passed. The most notable aspect of this crisis over executive authority in Nigeria has been the behavior of Jonathan, who is one heartbeat (or pen stroke) away from the most powerful position in the country. Jonathan has gone out of his way to show that he is a team player and that he does not covet his boss' job. This is likely because he does not see a power grab at the moment to be worth the risk. Firstly, Yaradua could recover and return to Abuja to reclaim his position, and there would be serious repercussions for Jonathan if he were to show disloyalty to Yaradua during his bout with ill health. But, even if Yaradua were never to return, national elections are less than a year away, and the pressure for another northern candidate to regain the presidency (in accordance with the power-sharing agreement) would be so great that it would be unlikely that Jonathan could stay on. Jonathan can bide his time, demonstrating he's not a threat to northern interests, then make the case that, in the next round of power rotation in 2015, he should be anointed president. If he makes a move to grab the presidency now, during Yaradua's absence, and it backfires on him — with another northerner becoming the ruling party's presidential candidate in 2011 — Jonathan could jeopardize his entire political future.