Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua Photos: AFP/Getty Images

Yar’Adua’s health again prompts questions

Published:  29 December, 2009

Continued speculation over the state of Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua’s health leads to uncertainty about his succession and reform efforts within the country

Since taking power on May 29 2007, the state of Umaru Yar’Adua’s physical health has been a source of continued speculation in Nigeria. When news emerged that the president had been flown to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in late November, and that his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, had assumed temporary control of the country. This resulted in open political debate about his presidency’s future with high-profile calls for his immediate resignation.

The incident has sparked speculation about whether Mr Yar’Adua will be able to see out his term and who would succeed him should he not. A statement, carried in a number of major national newspapers in December and purportedly signed by senior figures in the country, called for him to either resign or submit to a medical panel for assessment. The Nigerian cabinet rejected the notion.

Mr Yar’Adua is said to be suffering from acute pericarditis, a heart condition, which has kept him in a Jeddah hospital for several weeks. At the time of writing, no date had been set for his return to Abuja. The president also suffers from a chronic kidney complaint, for which he has regular treatment in the Middle East. In August 2009, it was widely reported that a last minute cancellation of his participation at the annual United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, where he was due to have a one-on-one meeting with US president Barack Obama, was due to ill health.

While legal procedures are in place should Mr Yar’Adua resign on health grounds, the need to balance political interests within Nigeria means that the succession could be far more complex.

“The constitution says Goodluck Jonathan should take over,” says Omaru Badara Sisay, deputy head of the Africa division at Exclusive Analysis, a political risk consultancy. “But this would violate the unspoken agreement between North and South of rotating power.”

Mr Yar’Adua, a northerner, was preceded by Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner, and he in turn is expected to hand power back to a southerner when he leaves office. Should he be unable to see out his term, the northerners could see a potential eight years of rule slashed to less than four. Mr Sisay argues that calls for his resignation are partly motivated by the ruling People’s Democratic Party’s desire to maintain northern control of the presidency until 2015. His resignation now would leave more time to prepare for the 2011 election than a later departure due to ill health.

“The health of Yar’Adua poses a problem,” says Markus Schneider, head of macroeconomic strategy at the London arm of Nigeria’s United Bank of Africa. However, he argues that the fallout of the president leaving office early should not be overstated. “If Goodluck Jonathan is going to succeed over the short term this could bring about tensions,” he adds, but says that “they will be able to sort themselves out.

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