It has been seven weeks since Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was flown from the country to Saudi Arabia for medical care. As days go by, anxiety and suspicion are progressively eroding Nigerian citizens' expectations of a speedy recovery and his quick return, as promised by various government officials. While the country could be praised for handling the matter so far with a rare calm that one could consider as a sign of the health of Nigeria's democracy, there is now a concern about how long the agony will last. News about the president's health from Saudi Arabia and Nigeria are contradictory and worrying for Africa's most populous country, to the extent that the senate is expected this week to hold an emergency meeting on the issue.
President Yar'Adua became president with two major thorns in his side, namely the conditions under which he was elected and his chronic health problems. Although he has seemingly managed to restore his constitutional legitimacy after a lengthy legal battle, his health issues continue to undermine his leadership and have generated a highly contentious political/succession debate in the country. The health of President Yar'Adua has raised serious concerns not only about his second term in office but also about the political future of the emerging democracy in Nigeria. His frequent medical visits to Saudi Arabia, especially the latest one, are stirring heated debate amongst the political elite. The President could allegedly be suffering from a poor heart and kidney condition.
On the one hand, some citizens are praying for the swift recovery of their leader while on the other hand, top political elites, including former high‐ranking government officials and the law society (Bar Association) have called for the resignation of the President and the strict application of Section 144 of the 1999 Constitution. Section 144 provides for the Federal Executive Council (FEC) to declare the President ‘incapable of discharging his duties after advice from a medical council'. This group believes that Yar'Adua's current health conditions offer sufficient ground to that effect. But Yar'Adua's supporters wasted no time in replying vehemently to the "plotters". The FEC then issued a strong statement declaring President Yar'Adua "fit to rule". Seven weeks later, it is hard to see any sign of the president being fit or of his recovery and though the ruling Peoples Democratic Party would like to be reassuring, a dark cloud still hangs over when exactly President Yar'Adua will be back.
Nigeria's 1999 constitution stipulates that if the president is incapacitated, the vice‐president could take over until the next elections slated for April 2011 (Article 146, 1999 Constitution). However, there also exists an unwritten consensus prescribing the rotation of the presidency among the three major ethnic groups in the country. As such, Northerners, from where the incumbent originates, are supposed to hold the highest office in the country until 2015. If President Yar'Adua is to be declared unfit to rule, will political actors maintain such an ad hoc consensus over the constitutional provisions?
According to media reports, former president Olusegun Obasanjo had gone as far as proposing Alhaji Sule Lamido to take over as a vice‐president. This could only be possible in a scenario where the current Vice‐President Goodluck Jonathan assumes the presidential office until the next elections in 2011. But many politicians and citizens criticised Obasanjo's proposal as lacking sensitivity for the life of the leader he himself imposed on Nigeria.
Indeed, President Yar'Adua's health saga calls for serious reflection on the possible impact of his eventual resignation on the stability and evolution of democracy in the country. Moreover, recognising the commendable ‘achievements' of President Yar'Adua at the helm of the most populous and perhaps most volatile country in sub‐Saharan Africa, one needs to ponder the impact of his absence on the various processes he initiated.
The democratic health of Nigeria is clearly put to test through the apparent stability and incremental establishment of constitutional order in the country. Just a decade ago, this health saga would have almost certainly resulted in a coup, bloody or otherwise. But the current debate around a constitutional succession and the use of constitutional channels in an attempt to replace the incumbent clearly indicate a shift in Nigerian politics from a past replete with unconstitutional changes of government. One could very well speculate on who should assume the political transition but the point remains that all this occurs within the confines of the 1999 Constitution.
The political achievements of President Yar'Adua - though disappointing to some extent - have earned him popular support, with various communities praying for his recovery. In concrete terms, Yar'Adua's skilful stabilisation of the highly turbulent Niger Delta region through the complex amnesty deal confirmed his technocratic ability to effectively tackle some of the contentious issues undermining governance in Nigeria. There are fears, however, that his resignation or chaotic succession at this stage could lead to a relapse of the region into conflict and instability. One recalls that various leaders, including Olusegun Obasanjo in 2004, have failed to effectively deal with militancy in the oil‐rich region.
One could thus hold that it is in the best interest of Nigeria to see Yar'Adua completing his term in office, should his health stabilise, with the hope he could complete some of the extensive and comprehensive reforms and initiatives he has undertaken to put the country back on track. One can also only hope that a smooth succession in the 2011 elections will see a continuation of the current democratic process in Nigeria.
Written by: David Zounmenou, Senior researcher, Africa Conflict Prevention Programmee, ISS Pretoria Office