In November 2009 Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua left his country to receive treatment at a Saudi Arabian clinic for pericarditis. He would not return until May 2010 and within three days was dead. In the interim period, Nigeria had fallen into a political crisis that threatened to unravel into violence.
Yar’Adua’s ability to appease his testy regional governors through oil-fuelled patronage politics had preserved an uneasy peace and averted a potential Nigerian civil war. His long illness and exile left a void that his inexperienced and virtually unknown Deputy President, Goodluck Jonathan, struggled to fill.
Various governors and regional warlords began to form cabals and jostle for position in the line of succession, their eternal hope being control of the petro-state, Nigeria’s economy of course being heavily dependent on the export of oil.
Jonathan eventually assumed the presidency, in the process ending an unwritten agreement to rotate the highest office in the land between natives of the South and North of the country, a major issue for an ethnically and religiously-divided nation.
The only way Jonathan could be assured of retaining power was ‘to put the looting machine into overdrive and distribute the proceeds widely to compensate for his lack of authority’. (Burgis, p.78)
Jonathan’s presidency would be characterised by a level of corruption unprecedented even in Nigeria’s nefarious history. He bought off regional agitators by granting them oil concessions, stifling the equal distribution of wealth to entrench a self-serving elite reliant on his continued patronage. This in turn led to a disenchanted and economically disenfranchised populace, many of whom began to turn to other groups who promised to represent their interests, most significantly the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram.
Knowing that control over the granting of oil exploration and exploitation rights was more important than popular support in a so-called ‘resource state’, President Jonathan neglected the needs of his countrymen. Infrastructure remained primitive, educational standards stagnated and the healthcare system was left destitute.
It is perhaps for this latter reason that many of Nigeria’s top – and by extension wealthiest – politicians seek any medical treatment they require abroad. It was the case for President Yar’Adua and is now also so for incumbent President Muhmmadu Buhari.
Despite railing against the ‘medical tourism’ of the Nigerian elite, President Buhari has spent the last couple of weeks undergoing unspecified ‘tests’ at a UK clinic, amidst speculation that his health is rapidly deteriorating.
With the Nigerian economy suffering as a result of the drop in global oil prices, and the Boko Haram insurgency continuing apace despite some setbacks, this latest uncertainty has conjured up memories of 2010 when the country appeared on the brink of disaster.
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, another relative unknown, has the difficult task of managing the inherent instability of his ethnically and regionally-divided country at a time when global economic conditions are unfavourable to him.
Multinational corporations must shoulder some of the responsibility for the vicious cycle within which the Nigerian people are trapped; namely the resource curse, or ‘Dutch Disease’. Shell has been pumping oil in the Niger Delta since the days of British colonial rule. Ever since, successive governments – whether civilian or military led – have courted the investment of these energy giants and split the proceeds between a narrow clique at the very summit of society.
In 1983, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe wrote:
The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example which are the hallmarks of true leadership. (Burgis, p.207).
Nigeria has suffered equally from colonial rule, corrupt post-independence leaders, exploitation by multinational corporations and the scourge of ethnic and religious division. If President Buhari fails to return then the final opportunity for true leadership will have arrived for Africa’s largest economy.
Who has the ability, or inclination, to exercise it, very much remains to be seen.
Burgis, T. The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Theft of Africa’s Wealth (2015)