Sick Nigerian President Yar'Adua risks army rule

THE NATION Newspaper

You'd have to be desperate to want a takeover by the Nigerian army. Nigeria's generals plundered the oil-rich country and executed opponents in a series of dictatorships from 1966 to 1999. And yet, in the taxi ranks, sports bars and five-star hotels in Lagos and Abuja, there are more and more whispers wishing the generals were back. Not that people see a military regime as a good thing. But, say some, it might just be better than the dreadful present: a President, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, confined to his sickbed in Saudi Arabia for two months but refusing to hand over to his deputy; the government of Africa's most populous country adrift; a civil war likely to start again in the southern oil fields; hundreds killed in religious clashes in the north; and fresh national shame after a young Nigerian tried to blow up an airplane over Detroit on Christmas Day. (See pictures of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.)

The damaging potential of this paralysis began to be realized this week when fractious rebels from the southern Niger delta first reunited, then on Saturday ended their four-month cease-fire and promised an "all-out onslaught" on foreign oil companies in which "nothing will be spared." A second giant worry is that the political impasse will exacerbate tension between northern, mostly Muslim Nigerians - who dominate the army and government and from whose ranks Yar'Adua hails - and southern Christians, whose most senior leader is the Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. As always, the split is the key issue in Nigerian politics, as northern politicians line up behind Yar'Adua and southerners call for his replacement with Jonathan. And while the riots and killings in the northern city of Jos - at least 200 people died after a group of Muslims attacked Christians leaving church on Jan. 17 - are not thought to be directly connected to the political crisis, they underline how explosive the religious divide can be.

In those circumstances, and with the army as one of the only state institutions still functioning, the generals - who imposed temporary military rule on Jos - can begin to look like Nigeria's last hope. Tanko Abubakar Yakassai, a former special assistant to Shehu Shagari, President between 1979 and 1983, warned: "People have to be very careful with their utterances not to overheat the polity and create the opportunity for some crazy people in the military to take advantage." But Lai Mohammed, spokesman of the main opposition party, Action Congress, told TIME that while "we must never wish for a coup" and "the worst civilian government is better than the most benevolent military regime," it is true that "we are doing things that 10 years ago would have been a reason for military takeover."

The army says it has no intention of re-entering politics. Chief of Army Staff Lieut. General Abdulrahman Danbazu - who is known to differ from his predecessors in his enthusiasm for a junta - addressed the rumors of a possible military takeover this week, saying he wished to "dismiss the unnecessary, unwarranted and inflammatory comments circulating which suggest a coup might be needed to pull the country out of a constitutional crisis in Yar'Adua's absence. A military coup would be akin to dragging us back to the dark days of our nation's history." He acknowledged, however, that "there is tension in the country, everybody knows that." Chief of Defense Staff, Air Marshal Paul Dike, seemed to suggest that tension involved the army itself when, the same day, he called on Nigeria's soldiers to "justify the trust of the nation's leadership by exhibiting unflinching loyalty." (See pictures of the two sides of Nigeria.)

But the army is also ultimately meant to serve a country and its people, and ever fewer Nigerians feel loyalty to President Yar'Adua. Retired Supreme Court Justice Kayode Eso tells TIME that Yar'Adua's continued insistence on ruling from his sickbed in Saudi Arabia was "insulting to the people. We are being taken for a ride and it must stop." Those who continue to support the President are merely those with something to lose should he step down, says Lai Mohammed. "There are some people today who have access to power and they are afraid that if the power moves to Jonathan, they will lose that access." Nigerians, he says, "treat power as a mistress, and something we would not want to share with anybody, not even a friend."

It seems increasingly clear that someone must replace the President - and before the next elections in 2011. As Chidi Amuta, columnist for This Day newspaper, wrote this week: Yar'Adua's conduct "has fatally compromised his stature ... Contempt for the people may not appear in the constitution as an impeachable offense but ... even if he returns now hale and hearty, Yar'Adua is a marked man."


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