Nigeria Mourns President Umaru Musa Yar`Adua


David Zounmenou, African Conflict Prevention Programme, ISS Pretoria.

On Wednesday 6 May, Nigerian media announced the death of President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua. The announcement came after a serious ailment kept the president bedridden and out of politics for more than three months.

At the time, Yar’Adua’s ailment raised concerns over the fragility of the Nigerian democratic experiment. Fortunately political common sense prevailed and constitutional and legal avenues were used to overcome the chasm of another democratic failure. If the political manoeuvering that preceded the appointment of Goodluck Jonathan as acting President was momentarily put to rest, signs from the new leadership point to a better future for Nigeria. The question however is whether Nigeria, having lost Yar’Adua, will be able to build on his aspirations to restore decency in the country’s political and economic destiny.

It is true that the death of Yar’Adua might close a controversial chapter in Nigerian politics, that of a mild and sometimes discreet presidency, a chapter of allegedly fraudulent voting during the 2007 electoral process considered as the worst in the history of the country. But most importantly, it will take away what former President Olusegun Obasanjo thought were the leadership qualities that motivated his choice of Yar’Adua as his successor: personal integrity, moderate religious beliefs and intellectual capacity - all things needed to substantiate Nigeria’s walk toward a viable and inclusive democracy and an economically prosperous country. In line with this, Yar’Adua will be remembered for his quiet but significant contribution to Nigerian economic and political reforms, including the revival of the largely discredited banking sector, the peace deal with the militants in the volatile Niger Delta, as well as his initiative to reform the electoral system.

Politically, Yar’Adua’s death might have some implications for Nigeria’s political trajectory in the near future. It removes one of the major obstacles in the way of the acting President’s capacity to assume substantively the function of Commander-in Chief and legitimate president of the oil-rich nation. What does this mean? It means that Goodluck Jonathan has various options available to him to transform Nigeria in a meaningful way, provided that he postpones his presidential ambitions for later. In doing so, he is likely to press for the implementation of some of the key reforms expected from his leadership, but that might be lost in political calculations.

The acting President has insisted that his stay in power will be guided by the vision of transforming Nigeria and not just ensuring a transition. He has the opportunity to turn this vision into action since he has no immediate personal political stake in the outcome of an election. He could seize this opportunity to take bold and courageous steps and leave a political legacy that might be useful in 2015 when the South will present a presidential candidate. However, given that he only has one year before the next president is sworn in, will he live up to these high expectations?

His bold decision to sack the Chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) Prof. Maurice Iwu was saluted as an attempt to clear the way for a credible election in 2011. Though a dose of luck has been fuelling Jonathan’s rise to power, his decision to only complete the one-year term could help maintain the unity of the People Democratic Party (PDP). Tensions are already on the rise and camps are emerging for and against Jonathan. Some elements might also want to convince him of his chances to win, even at the expense of the rotational gentlemen’s agreement that favours a northern candidate until 2015. Though not constitutionally endorsed, any decision contrary to that arrangement will certainly ruin his political career and plunge Nigeria into uncertainty.

For the time being, the appointment of the vice-president, a likely candidate for the 2011 electoral contest, will reveal the state of cohesion within the ruling party. The 1999 constitution stipulates that in case of vacancy for reasons owing to death or incapacity, the President shall nominate and, with the approval of each House of the National Assembly, appoint a new vice-president (article 146, 3c). Having been officially sworn in as a president, Jonathan can then proceed according to that provision. The appointment of the vice-president might provide some insights into the potential future leader of Nigeria. There are therefore tough times ahead for the country, as the internal battle for succession and the activities of the so-called kingmakers will gain momentum.

In announcing his candidacy for 2011, even without the backing of his party (PDP), former military ruler Ibrahim Babanguida attempts to surf on the uncertainty within the political class. Even though his chances of winning are slim, he is a factor to take into consideration. As Nigeria mourns its president, and tributes flow in from around the world, it is perhaps an opportunity for the leadership both within and outside the PDP to build on the values President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua attempted to introduce in the national polity.

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