NIGERIA: U.S. Concerned About Yar'Adua's Return

  • by Charles Fromm and Jim Lobe (washington)
  • Wednesday, February 24, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

While his spokesman said that Yar'Adua's vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, will continue for now to serve as acting president, a position to which he was elected by the National Assembly two weeks ago, officials here said the return could result in a significant increase in tensions.

Yar'Adua's return, however, could mark the first step in a strategy to challenge Jonathan, whose efforts to reassure oil companies, resume an anti-corruption campaign, and restore calm to the country have been well received by Washington and other Western capitals.

'We hope that President Yar'Adua's return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisers to upset Nigeria's stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process,' Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said in a statement released here and by the U.S. embassy in Nigeria shortly after his overnight return was reported.

'Nigeria is an extraordinarily important country to its friends and partners, and all of those in positions of responsibility should put the health of the president and the best interests of the country and people of Nigeria above personal ambition or gain,' Carson said.

'Recent reports …suggest that President Yar'Adua's health remains fragile,' he told reporters here Wednesday.

Carson also noted that the United States receives 12 percent of its oil imports from Africa's most populous nation.

He added that Nigeria plays the leading role played by Abuja in the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), provides thousands of troops for U.N. and African Union (AU) peacekeeping operations, and is currently serving on the U.N. Security Council.

Until Jonathan was elected acting president, regional tensions over Yar'Adua's absence had been building steadily within Nigeria since the 58-year-old leader, who has long suffered from ill health, was first evacuated to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in November. Apart from a brief interview broadcast by BBC, the president had been virtually incommunicado during his hospital stay.

In early January, opposition and civil society groups, particularly in the south, began agitating for the president to be formally declared incapacitated and for a constitutional succession to get underway.

Yar'Adua hails from the predominantly Muslim and Hausa-Fulani northern half of the country and Jonathan hails from the mainly Christian South, which is dominated by the Yoruba and Igbo peoples. Jonathan's accession, which was opposed mainly by northerners and cabinet members close to Yar'Adua, threatened an informal arrangement between northern and southern elites to a rotation of the presidency every two terms.

Adding to concerns about the country's stability, several hundred people were believed to have been killed during an outbreak of violence between Christian and Muslim groups in and around the central city of Jos in late January.

In addition to north-south and religious tensions, a peace process between the federal government and local ethnic militias in the oil-rich but desperately poor Niger Delta was increasingly threatened by the absence of an executive authority in Abuja.

Indeed, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), the main rebel group in the region, ended a three-month-old ceasefire late last month by resuming the kidnapping of foreign oil workers, actions that predictably shook global oil markets.

'Leaderless Nigeria could spin out of control' was the headline of one column co-written by Louise Arbour and Ayo Obe, president and board member of the International Crisis Group (ICG), respectively, that was published in the Financial Times just before Jonathan was elected acting president.

'If Abuja does not resolve the impasse over its leadership and return governance to a clear constitutional track very soon, it will spell disaster,' the two ICG officials warned, adding that, at some point, the military would be tempted to step in.

While Jonathan's election as acting president and his subsequent efforts to calm domestic tensions and reassure foreign oil companies and the West have made substantial headway, Yar'Adua's return is seen here as threatening what progress has been made.

'The situation is very uncertain,' said Peter Lewis, director of the African studies programme at American University and a Nigeria specialist here.

'They have a leadership crisis currently. Reports indicate that he was brought into the country in a medivac plane in the dead of night and has not been seen publicly or by the acting president since his arrival, so we don't know if he will be capable of resuming the legal status of the president.'

Washington's interest in Nigeria has grown steadily as its importance as a source of imported oil has grown relatively quickly in recent years.

U.S. officials, especially under the administration of former President George W. Bush, also expressed concerns about the possible rise of Islamist extremism in the Muslim northern part of the country. Those concerns gained greater weight after a young Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab, was apprehended after allegedly trying to explode a bomb aboard a U.S. civilian airliner as it approached Detroit on Christmas Day.

U.S. foreign aid to Nigeria has also increased in recent years. The administration of President Barack Obama has proposed increasing development assistance to the country by nearly eight percent in 2011, to some 76 million dollars. In addition, Washington provides another 470 dollars for global health and child survival programmes.

Washington has also been eager to help train and equip Nigerian security forces, notably its Coast Guard, and the Pentagon's new Africa Command (Africom) has been particularly aggressive in building links with the Nigerian military.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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