Nigeria unsettled by president's illness

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua’s latest bout of ill health has sparked calls for his resignation and prompted fresh political scheming as his chances of standing for a second term in the 2011 election look increasingly uncertain.

Just before November’s Eid festival, Yar’Adua began complaining of chest pains while at the mosque in the capital Abuja. He was then flown to a clinic in Saudi Arabia. The president’s doctor said that he was suffering from acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining around the heart, but said that Yar’Adua was responding to treatment and would return soon to Nigeria. However, more than two weeks since his abrupt departure, Yar’Adua is reportedly still in Jeddah.

Nigeria’s leader has a history of kidney problems and has traveled to Saudi Arabia and Germany for treatment since 2007. But his latest trip has sparked an unprecedented outcry in sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest energy producer. More than 50 top Nigerian opposition figures, lawyers and activists together called on Dec. 1 for the president to stand down or allow a medical panel to decide if he is fit to rule. These signatories say the president’s ill health is increasingly hindering progress in Nigeria, a balancing act of vast energy reserves, multinational oil companies and hundreds of ethnic groups.

“People are seeing [the president’s] capacity diminish,” said Pat Utomi, former director of Lagos Business School, who put his name to the list. “Nigeria has its complexities and we need someone who can react to things quickly.”

Yar’Adua’s critics observe that passing legislation, for example, is grindingly slow. A verdict on the all-important Petroleum Industry Bill, which stands to restructure the state oil company’s joint projects with foreign groups such as RoyalDutch Shell, Total and ExxonMobil, is now highly unlikely before the end of the year.

A bill to outlaw same-sex marriages has been under discussion for almost three years.
The slow pace of governance has earned the ailing president the nickname “Baba Go-Slow,” likening his government’s progress to one of the notorious traffic jams in Lagos, the congested commercial capital. Some point out that these delays say more about the country than the man.

“The main thing is having functioning institutions. If we had that, it wouldn’t matter if he had to go away,” said Ahmadu Aliyu, a political analyst based in Abuja. “The institutions would look after things.”

Nigeria’s cabinet has rejected the recent ultimatum from the opposition, saying the president will resume work shortly. Nigeria's naira, an often volatile currency, and financial markets have likewise remained steady, as investors seemingly find little reason to panic. But the prospect that Yar’Adua will suddenly resign or decide not to stand for a second term still looms large. This would result in a scramble for the top spot in the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which could even split the group.

Having experienced several military coups since gaining independence from the British in 1960, Nigeria re-established civilian rule under the PDP in 1999. This party has since kept a firm grip, with elections in 2003 and 2007 widely condemned by international observers as violent and rigged. The prospect of a divided or weaker PDP thus challenges the assumption that the 2011 poll was another “done deal,” some analysts say.

The opposition, therefore, are making much of Yar’Adua’s sojourn in Jeddah — even though pericarditis is not a serious condition per se.

“The ministers insist that he is well, but it is insulting to Nigerians to say that this is a minor ailment,” said Lai Mohammed, a spokesman for the Action Congress party. “He has been ex-communicado for two weeks.”

Those close to the ruling party dismiss such comments as mischief, especially as Nigeria prepares for elections in 2011. But there is a chance that any prolonged uncertainty, and the chance of a vacancy at the top, could do more harm than good in a country where every teenager and adult remembers the severity of military rule just 10 years ago.

“There is always the risk of a coup here, the risk that some rascals will try to take over,” said former business school director Utomi. “It [the current limbo] does heighten that risk, which is why we need to organize a transition."