A sick presidency

2009-12-19 13:48

EVEN in normal times, Nigerians wear religion on their sleeves, paste it on their car bumpers and post it on their windscreens.

In the past three weeks, however, the country has become one huge cathedral, with politician ­after politician mounting the stage to request special prayers for President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua who is now spending his third week in a specialist hospital in Saudi Arabia.

The president needs prayers, no doubt. His latest medical trip to Saudi Arabia on November 23 was his fourth to that country on health grounds since he came to office in 2007.

Though Yar’Adua has had a long history of kidney disease, his doctors have linked his current health crisis with pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart. No further statement on his health has been issued, setting off a firestorm of rumours in the public and infighting in his cabinet.

Politicians have also been ­exploiting the president’s health crisis, calling for prayers in the daytime and plotting at night, just in case the worst happens.

The Senate president and number three man in the country, David Mark, called for a nine-day prayer yet a recent press report linked him with moves to edge out the vice-president if the president is unable to resume his duties.
In a statement that shocked the country and shamed the constitution, Mark’s deputy, following his master’s voice, said President Yar’Adua could be hospitalised for one year and still be validly in charge: all that was required, he said, was constant prayer.

That’s not what the constitution says. The president is required by law to hand over to his deputy, if on grounds of fitness or holiday he cannot effectively discharge the duties of his office.

Two weeks ago, a group of 53 prominent politicians, across party lines, issued a statement calling on the president to follow the law by officially handing power over to his deputy and stepping down.

But that is unlikely to happen because as one source told me last week, “those who are now in charge don’t trust the vice-president enough”. Fifteen years ago (though the country was under military rule then), what was supposed to have been a “temporary” handover of power from military president Ibrahim ­Babangida to the most senior officer General Sani Abacha, marked the beginning of one of the darkest episodes in Nigeria’s history.

In a country where the delicate power balance between the largely Muslim north and the largely Christian south remains a sensitive issue, the feeling in some circles is that handing over to a Christian deputy president after eight straight years of Olusegun Obasanjo (a Christian president) will once again tip the power scales in favour of the south.

But the country is paying a price for the hubris. The 2010 appropriation bill cannot be signed into law because that can only be done by a sitting or acting president. The Petroleum Industry Bill which the government had promised would be signed into law before the end of the year as a major part of a peace offering for the troubled ­Niger Delta region may remain a pipedream if the president is unable to resume his duties.

The bad blood between the oil majors and the government over licences for new fields and project funding will either linger on or fester. And worse, the paralysis which now threatens the executive could spread to the ­judiciary. Vacancies for the offices of the president of the Court of Appeal and the chief judge of the Supreme Court can’t be filled without a sitting or acting president. Right now, Nigeria has neither.

And all of this at a time when the country badly needs a shot in the arm, following the banking crisis that devalued capital market assets by over 60% in one year.

Looking to God for answers to the country’s predicament is a waste of heaven’s time. The ­answers are already abundantly provided in history.

Unfortunately, from Guinea to Togo and Ivory Coast, neither the hosts of heaven nor the sundry ­deities the citizens lifted up their voices to proved effective in stemming the monsters unleashed by political leaders who would rather die than arrange an orderly transfer of power.

President Yar’Adua should not only hand over, he should, to borrow Fidel Castro’s words, deem it a ­betrayal of his conscience to continue to accept a responsibility ­requiring more mobility and dedication than he is physically and emotionally able to offer.

Ishiekwene is the executive editor of Punch magazine in Nigeria

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