For another, Wilson was the president of Princeton University before he entered politics, whereas Umaru Yar’Adua’s highest academic post was lecturer in chemistry at the College of Arts, Science and Technology in Zaria, Kaduna State. But there is one striking similarity between the two men.
In 1919, about halfway through his second term as president, Wilson suffered a stroke that left him paralysed on his left side and blind in his left eye. He never recovered sufficiently to resume carrying out the duties of the president — but almost nobody knew it at the time.
Wilson’s wife Edith safeguarded his position by allowing almost nobody else access to him for the last 17 months of his term. Even the vice-president and the cabinet almost never got in to see him. In effect, it was she who acted as the country’s chief executive.
More recently, last November, President Yar’Adua unexpectedly left Nigeria for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia — and didn’t come back. He had made no arrangements for the vice-president to take over his duties while he was gone, but he remained abroad for three months, in a hospital bed and virtually incommunicado, while the business of government was paralysed in Africa’s biggest country.
Very little information was released about the precise nature of his illness. He already had serious kidney problems, but this time it was said that he had been struck down by acute pericarditis, an inflamation of the tissue surrounding the heart. As the weeks passed and the unmade decisions piled up in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, suspicions grew that he was on life support and might never resume power again.
Finally, last month, the Nigerian Senate declared that Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan should become the Acting President and carry out Yar’Adua’s duties until such time as he might recover. Soon afterwards Yar’Adua was flown back into Nigeria and driven to the presidential villa in the middle of the night.
Statements by his aides pointedly refer to “Vice-President” Jonathan, implying that Yar’Adua is back in charge. However, he spent his first week home in the back of an ambulance, while an intensive care facility was built inside the presidential villa. His wife Turai has taken control of his agenda, and is allowing almost nobody in to see him. Even Jonathan has been turned away repeatedly.
Yar’Adua’s return, however incapacitated he may be, has severely undermined Jonathan’s ability to take major decisions. He may be the acting president, but he cannot actually act. And so the paralysis in Nigeria deepens.
What is really going on here is the latest round in the perpetual power struggle among Nigeria’s ultra-rich elites. Political power matters greatly to them, since their wealth mainly derives from stealing the resources of the state, and in practice the competition is between the northern elite, who are Muslim, and the southern elite, who are Christian. Yar’Adua is a Muslim; Jonathan is a Christian.
It is a competition that has sometimes come close to tearing the country apart, and the animosities it generates play out at street level in the form of occasional massacres that seem to be religious in motivation. Last week’s mass murders of Christian villagers in Plateau state, for example, were probably retaliation for a similar mass killing of Muslims in January — and the tit-for-tat massacres actually go back for many years.
But neither at the national or at the village level is this struggle really about religious differences. The desperate attempt to keep a probably comatose Yar’Adua in power is happening because replacing him in mid-term with Jonathan violates a gentleman’s agreement in the ruling party that Muslim and Christian leaders should alternate in power so that everybody who matters gets a fair turn at the trough.
Similarly, the massacres in Plateau state, which lies on the border between northern, Muslim Nigeria and the southern, Christian half of the country, are actually due to a conflict over land between the local farmers (whose Berom ethnic group happens to be Christian), and Fulani-speaking pastoralists who happen to be Muslim.
A struggle for power at the top, a struggle for land at the bottom, both defined as Muslims versus Christians: it sounds like a formula for breaking Nigeria in two. But it will probably never happen so long as Nigerian politics remains a conspiracy of the rich against the poor.
The northern elite plays the Muslim card repeatedly to preserve its monopoly of power in the northern states, but it will never stop collaborating with the southern elite to maintain the status quo, because all the oil is in the south. The two groups compete fiercely over the division of the spoils, but if the north ever really seceded from Nigeria, the northern elite would lose its access to the oil revenues that keep it rich.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.