Nigeria’s North and South Divide

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

The transfer of power to Nigeria’s vice-president has eased immediate concerns about a power vacuum in the country, but there is still plenty of potential for political acrimony–and delays in policymaking.

On February 9th Nigeria’s vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, became acting president, pending the return to office of the ailing Umaru Yar’Adua, who has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia since late November. Mr Jonathan’s assumption of full presidential powers came after weeks of uncertainty–and growing pressure on President Yar’Adua to transfer power, so ending a power vacuum that many observers believed was threateningNigeria’s fragile democracy. The vice-president’s accession has therefore stabilised the situation temporarily; however, there remains the potential for considerable political acrimony. In part this is because of the unwritten arrangement in the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) that the presidency rotate every two terms between the north and south–an important geopolitical divide in Nigeria. Mr Yar’Adua is a northern Muslim and Mr Jonathan a southern Christian. As a result, Mr Jonathan is likely to come under considerable pressure from the northern political establishment to avoid initiating any contentious policy decisions or government appointments, effectively rendering him a “lame duck” president. The acting head of state and his supporters seem unlikely to accept this–indeed, on February 10th Mr Jonathan removed the powerful justice minister, who had been strenuously opposed to the transfer of power, appointing him as “minister of special duties” instead. There is concern, therefore, that a potentially damaging power struggle could ensue. Complicating the situation is the fact that the transfer of power is constitutionally questionable–it is unclear whether parliament has the constitutional authority to elevate the vice-president to the position of head of state in the absence of a letter from Mr Yar’Adua stating that he wishes to transfer power–meaning that the acting president’s executive actions could be open to legal challenges.

At the same time, the transfer of power underscores perceptions that Mr Yar’Adua is unlikely to be able to contest the presidential election in 2011, suggesting that there will be a probably tumultuous struggle to succeed him within the PDP. Senior members within the party will attempt to act as power brokers, but as each will favour their own choice of successor, political tensions will run high. In theory, this could enable the opposition to mount a serious challenge in both the presidential and legislative polls, but again competing personalities within opposition groups are likely to intervene. Thus, if the PDP manages to avoid major rifts, its candidate–whoever that is–will be the strong favourite to win in 2011.

An alternative scenario–albeit with a low probability attached–is that the political acrimony in the race to succeed Mr Yar’Adua degenerates to such an extent that the military attempts to seize power. A coup cannot be ruled out–there have been numerous periods of military rule in Nigeria since independence–although popular support would not be forthcoming. The current political situation, though unfortunate, is nowhere near as desperate as past system breakdowns that led to previous coups.

A more immediate concern is that the political uncertainty will result in key policy initiatives being delayed or abandoned. In particular, the peace initiative in the oil-producing Niger Delta region could suffer. Hopes had been raised by a recent government amnesty that has succeeded in disarming about 15,000 gunmen. However, a lack of clear leadership at what is a critical period may well see former combatants returning to violence. Even before Mr Yar’Adua’s absence, the government was struggling to live up to its promises of creating jobs and improving infrastructure in the region. Nevertheless, Mr Jonathan is from the Delta region and will attach a high priority to getting the peace process back on track.

Social unrest elsewhere in the country is expected to increase during 2010-11, however. High levels of poverty and ethnic and religious divisions can lead to periodic outbreaks of violence. Coupled with growing popular disillusionment with the political elite and the approaching elections, the scene is set for further bloody outbreaks of violence. Their sporadic nature means that they are unlikely to threaten overall stability in Nigeria, but they are likely to create costly disruptions to business operations. The acting president is therefore set to face numerous policy challenges, even if he does manage to unite the ruling party.