The Sick Man of Africa

Nigeria, with its massive population and growing network of radical Islamists, is on the brink of collapse—and is slated to be an even bigger problem than Yemen.

While a great deal of attention has been focused on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab-the al-Qaeda-linked Nigerian who tried blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day as it was en route from Amsterdam to Detroit-it is the terrorist's home country which policy makers and analysts in Washington and other capitals should really be worried about. Since late November, when President Umaru Yar'Adua was rushed to the intensive-care unit of a Riyadh hospital, the West African country has seen its governmental institutions grind to a screeching halt. The chief of state's death in 2010 or even a further deterioration in his health could well lead to major instability in Nigeria; possibly even its slide toward a wholesale state failure.

Even if the possibility of such a catastrophe is remote, that it is imaginable at all should be worrisome to the international community. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted during her visit to Abuja last August:

The United States views Nigeria as a friend, an ally, and a partner on so many important issues, as well as an important country in Africa and increasingly, globally. Nigeria is Africa's most populous nation, its largest producer of oil, its largest contributor of peacekeepers, a significant trading partner for the United States, and the largest recipient of American direct investment by the private sector in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While presidential aides insist that Yar'Adua's acute pericarditis-the condition they admit he suffers from, in addition to a long-term kidney disorder-is under control, the fact is that they have let no one, even cabinet ministers, see the president in weeks. The question of the actual state of Yar'Adua's health was underscored last week when, one day before his own retirement, Nigerian Chief Justice Idris Legbo Kutigi, swore in his successor, Aloysius Katsina-Alu. That act has always been done by the president, and there had long been talk that the new chief justice would be flown to Riyadh and a bedside ceremony would be filmed, thus giving Nigerians the first glimpse of their president in months. Alas, Yar'Adua proved too ill for even that controlled encounter. So now, in addition to an ailing president, the country has a chief justice whose position is tenable. (There is considerable debate among members of the Nigerian bar and in the popular press over whether anyone other than the president can validly administer the oath of office to new chief justice.)

What is telling is that the Nigerian Constitution has a provision to deal with precisely this type of situation, but Yar'Adua and his entourage have opted not to invoke it. Article 145 allows the vice president to take over presidential duties if the president is incapacitated. Despite the president's prolonged absence from the country and evident incapacity, no move has been made to transfer his authority and provide Nigeria with at least interim leadership, creating a power vacuum. Some of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan's supporters have been grousing that there is a conspiracy afoot to keep their man from power. They may be right.

One of the unwritten rules of Nigerian politics, necessitated perhaps by the country's delicate ethnic, regional and religious balance, is that there should be turns at major federal offices, so that northern Muslims and southern Christians rotate in and out of positions. Hence, when Olusegun Obasanjo, a southern Christian, left office, a northern Muslim, Yar'Adua, succeeded him. Likewise, Obasanjo's northern Muslim vice president, Atiku Abubakar, was succeeded by a southern Christian, Jonathan. Should Vice President Jonathan take over, even temporarily, and Yar'Adua fails to rally, many northerners, especially those in the incumbent president's inner circle, will feel cheated out of their full chance to control the approximately $100 billion in annual oil and gas revenue that comes under the authority of the chief executive.

But the reluctance to admit Jonathan to the presidency may also have something to do with his own reputation and that of his wife, Patience, who has been indicted for money laundering by the anti-corruption Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. For his part, among other things, Jonathan, a onetime fisheries inspector and lecturer in zoology, has never quite explained by what feat of financial wizardry he amassed some $2.4 million dollars-the amount he officially declared in required disclosures-during his undistinguished seventeen months as governor of Bayelsa State before ascending to the vice presidency.

Consequently, Abuja is rife with rumors of plots and counterplots. There is even serious talk of a military intervention-either by senior officers intent on keeping Jonathan from becoming president, or by junior officers seeking to throw out the political class in its entirety. Take all of this together and one could see why a number of parties may want to keep Yar'Adua, even if he is utterly incapacitated, on at least until the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) presidential primaries later this year.

The risk, however, is that without more dynamic leadership throughout 2010, the already-tenuous ceasefire with insurgents in the hydrocarbon-rich Niger Delta will not hold. Meanwhile, up north there is likely to be little political will to confront the continuing radicalization of individuals like Abdulmutallab, and violent Islamic sects. One such group, Boko Haram, ran amuck across four northern states last July, leaving about one thousand people dead in its wake. Another organization, Yan Kala Kato (also known as Maitatsine), clashed violently with police in Bauchi State last week, killing dozens and wounding hundreds.

And certainly an administration headed by a moribund lame-duck will have no energy whatsoever to undertake the electoral reforms that Nigeria desperately needs in advance of the national elections due by April 2011. Or to tackle transnational problems like burgeoning piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, or the brutish junta that seized power in Guinea in late 2008, both situations where Abuja might have been expected to weigh in as the regional power. If anything, a rudderless Nigeria is not only a lost opportunity. It is also a threat to the interests of both its neighbors and the international community, and cannot be ignored any longer.


J. Peter Pham is senior fellow and director of the Africa Project at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy.