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Democracy in West Africa: Yar’Adua’s Disappearing Act (Part 1)

February 19, 2010

*What* is going on in West Africa these days? First it’s Guinea, then Nigeria, then Guinea again, and now a coup in Niger. When they say truth is stranger than fiction, they’re clearly referring to political goings-on in West Africa.

Part 1: Nigeria

Nigeria’s president Umaru Yar’Adua has been MIA for almost three months now, fuelling speculation that he:

A) Is Dead

B) In a Coma

C) Has Been Kidnapped

The official story is that he is has an inflammation in the lining of the heart and he has been taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment. The last that his country has heard from him was on the BBC on January 12th. He gave a 3 minute interview where he said that he was recuperating well. What he did *not* say was that he was stepping down.

Turmoil continues for several more weeks as government business grinds to a halt. On Febuary 5th, we hear that the president is finally going to hand over power to his Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. But the precarious political balance between the Muslim North (where Yar’Adua is from) and the Christian South (where Jonathan is from) has long rested on a rotation of the presidency between the two areas. This is most likely why Yar’Adua did not hand over to Jonathan when he left for Saudi Arabia– the cabal of officials around him has everything to lose, including their jobs. (Bear in mind that politics can be a money-making enterprise for some officials.)

As the Yar’Adua loyalists see it, it’s not the South’s turn yet– we’ve still got another 2 years! Who cares if the country goes to hell in a handbasket?!

The problem is not that Yar’Adua has been sick– the problem is the cover-up that has ensued. You can’t run a country with a massive power vacuum in your leadership and expect for there to be no consequences. Three months is a long time to go without a functioning head of state. The speculation and rumours that have ensued have damaged Nigerian democracy immeasurably. Indeed, it sounds like the Americans have been quietly urging for a handover to take place– before the military has the chance to to do so. Given the country’s past history with military dictatorships, it is easy to see why the West (with its oil interests) is worried about political upheaval.

How can Nigerians trust the institution of democracy when it simply leads to chaos like this? A well-functioning democracy relies, to some extent, on the foresight of politicians to the public good ahead of their own private interests. Checks and balances are put in place to ensure that politicians don’t step out of line– but it’s impossible for rules and regulations to anticipate everything that could go wrong– sometimes you just have to trust politicians to do what is right. Even if they end up disappointing.

For their part, Yar’Adua and his party need to put the public good ahead of their own interests. Jonathan and his supporters should appease Yar’Adua loyalists by allowing most senior officials to keep their jobs and hold off on a patronage binge. Some reassurance to the country’s Muslims would also help to tamp down religious tensions. But I guess all of this is easier said then done.

For background, see the story from Time.

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