Nigeria: President's death ends political turmoil

Published May 7, 2010

 

LAGOS, Nigeria – There was a time when the death of a president signaled yet another coup in oil-rich Nigeria, with a new military strongman in mirrored sunglasses seizing power across Africa's most populous nation.

Those days apparently ended with the burial of nation's long ill elected president Umaru Yar'Adua, whose death ironically appears to have made the nation the most stable it's been in months.

With new President Goodluck Jonathan firmly in power, a constitutional controversy over who holds power in one of the top suppliers of crude oil to the United States has been resolved — at least until elections are held early next year.

"What President Yar'Adua's death does is it makes Acting President Jonathan the president without any questions," said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria who now is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There is no longer any cloud of extralegality over him."

Yar'Adua died Wednesday night at the Aso Rock presidential villa, but his grip on power since his election in 2007 always appeared weakened by his chronically poor health and kidney ailments. Still, Yar'Adua and especially those surrounding him appeared bent on keeping power within their hands, even as he fell ill in late November with acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.

Yar'Adua left for treatment at a Saudi Arabian hospital and remained there for months. That shouldn't have been a problem under Nigeria's constitution, which has clear instructions for ceding power during an absence. But Yar'Adua apparently refused to empower Jonathan.

That led to a months-long constitutional crisis as official documents went unsigned and marchers filled the streets of Nigeria's capital of Abuja, demanding the end of what protesters decried as an "offshore presidency."

But during Yar'Adua's absence, the military remained within its barracks and senior leaders said troops would remain out of the nation's politics.

The National Assembly voted Feb. 9 to empower Jonathan as "acting president," an office unforeseen in the constitution and a vote that lawyers warned could be challenged in court. Perhaps sensing that, Jonathan moved into the position hesitantly, though he reshuffled the Cabinet and announced a $20 billion deal with French oil major Total.

Then, under the cover of darkness Feb. 24, a military convoy escorted an ambulance carrying Yar'Adua back to the presidential villa. Confusion briefly followed, but Yar'Adua issued a statement that Jonathan would remaining acting president — though the constitution allowed Yar'Adua to announce at any time his return to the country's highest office.

"I'm sure it was always in the back of (Jonathan's) mind, what would happen if Yar'Adua reclaimed power," said Kissy Agyeman-Togobo, a political analyst with IHS Global Insight.

But Yar'Adua didn't and Jonathan showed "signs of great independence" by dissolving Yar'Adua's Cabinet and meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington, Agyeman-Togobo said.

Even as Yar'Adua's aides began choreographing meetings between the ailing president and religious leaders to prove his existence, Jonathan maintained control and won support among Nigerians for his promises to reform the country's electoral system and improve its national power grid.

With Yar'Adua dead, Jonathan can now pick a new vice president for the country, subject to Senate approval. Analysts believe that person likely will be a Muslim from the country's north to satisfy an unwritten power-sharing agreement within Nigeria's ruling People's Democratic Party.

That agreement calls for the presidency to alternate between Nigeria's Christians and Muslims, who split the country's 150 million people. Questions remain over whether Jonathan, a Christian, will run for the office left vacant by the death of Yar'Adua, a Muslim who held power for less than one term.

Leaders in the north expected to hold onto the office for another term, as former Christian President Olusegun Obasanjo held office for two, four-year terms.

If Jonathan decides to run, it could split the ruling party. But for now, things appear to be calm in a nation that's known great violence in its 50 years of independence from Britain.

"Free At Last," blared the headline below a photo of Yar'Adua's flag-draped corpse on the front page of Friday's edition of NEXT, a Nigerian newspaper.

Written by JON GAMBRELL, Associated Press Writer

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