Imagine that one day President Barack Obama disappears. It is rumored that he has gone to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment of a condition that nobody is quite certain about. After three months, the public starts to speculate as to whether or not he is still alive. As a result of failing to follow the correct constitutional steps to ensure that the country would be run in his absence, Vice President Joe Biden has been unable to take power. The country is leaderless, in political turmoil, and Americans are left wondering what is going on. Nearly four months later, the protests of a despondent and resigned public prompt some action and Biden steps in to run the country. Shortly after that, Obama reappears–still not telling anyone exactly where he has been, nor the truth about the current status of his health. Access to him is limited and first lady Michelle Obama starts taking interviews on his behalf.
It sounds bizarre. Unthinkable, even. Yet this is exactly what has been happening in Nigeria since late November when the president, Umaru Yar’Adua, left in secret to go to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, leaving the country teetering on the brink of a political crisis, calling into question the very nature of Nigeria’s democratic process and sparking a new sense of urgency for change and reform within the country. He has not addressed the public since November 2009, when he left the country to have inflammation of the lining around his heart treated. No one heard from him in February, when Vice President Goodluck Jonathan became acting president, or since Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria last week.
How did we get here? In 1999, after years of military rule which followed Nigeria’s independence from Britain and failed experiments in democracy, the country finally embraced civilian rule and the democratic process. However, the self-serving attitude and actions of a supposedly democratic leadership, which often seems to be no different from that of the former military rulers, continues to prohibit Nigerians from fully reaping the fruits of democracy and from having the country run at full capacity.
Let’s be clear what “not running at full capacity” means. It means that Nigerians are now used to power outages that can last months. They have become used to sitting for hours in traffic on roads with gigantic pot holes and no road signs in which innumerable vehicles, people and perhaps even a random animal jostle for space. They have become used to the corruption that has become a part of the fabric of everyday life, and the incredible gap between the poor–who can live on top of each other in shacks–and the rich–who live close to them in compounds and mansions. They have become used to substandard education and universities that spend half of the year on strike. They’ve become used to their leaders enriching themselves out of the pockets of the people who they are supposed to serve.
These problems didn’t always exist. My parents often talk of a time–in the 1970s–when Nigeria functioned well. However, the negative effects of military rule, particularly that of General Sani Abacha between 1993 and 1998, took hold and have not fundamentally been altered by democracy. Abacha was responsible for many human-rights abuses, as well as a slow but steady increase in corruption and a lack of investment in Nigeria’s infrastructure. Despite some efforts from the president who came before Yar’Adua, the corruption has continued.
It is a tragedy that Nigeria–nearly 50 years after its independence from colonial rule–is still falling so far behind its potential. Just a few months ago, Princeton Lyman, the former U.S. ambassador to South Africa and Nigeria, said that Nigeria risked becoming irrelevant as other, better-managed countries, such as Ghana (where oil has recently been discovered) rise to prominence on the international stage.
Yar’Adua’s 2007 election was controversial. Many Nigerians believe that he is essentially a puppet who was handpicked to lead by former President Olusegun Obasanjo and that election rigging ensured that his party–ironically called the People’s Democratic Party–won. Since his election, a number of undemocratic incidents have damaged Yar’Adua’s public image. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an anti-corruption body which seemed to show that Yar’Adua was doing something positive for Nigeria, was undermined by the ouster of its chairman, Nuhu Ribadu. After having successfully prosecuted hundreds of Nigerian corruption cases, Ribadu was sacked by the Nigerian Police Force two weeks after close friend of Yar’Adua, River State governor James Ibori, was charged on 170 counts of corruption by the EFCC. One of those counts alleged a $15 million bribe that Ibori had offered to–and was refused by–Ribadu. Ribadu now resides outside of Nigeria, essentially in exile.