Nigeria’s constitutional crisis and US interference

Pambazuka News

With Nigeria locked in a constitutional crisis, Funmi Feyide-John discusses the role of the US government’s interference. While praising the Nigerian government for its ability to calmly transfer power to Vice-President Goodluck Johnson following President Umaru Yar’Adua’s absence due to poor health, Feyide-John writes, the US’s alleged favouritism towards particular political players risks severely undermining democracy in Nigeria through casting whoever ultimately ends up as president as a foreign puppet. In meeting former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida in Yar’Adua’s absence, Feyide-John stresses, the US’s actions give credence to suggestions of its intent to secure a Nigerian base for its AFRICOM (Africa Command) initiative and bolster its access to oil, as part of political dabbling which will doubtless have a lasting impact on Nigerian politics.

Funmi Feyide-John
The ties that bind between Nigeria and the United States of America run deep. In 2009, Nigeria was the third top supplier of crude oil to the United States, but its ‘sweet bonny crude’ is of the highest quality in the world. Nigeria is the United States’s largest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa, and the US is also the largest foreign investor in the country. Additionally, the US is home to a growing number of Nigerians in the diaspora, with the most educated group of immigrants in the United States being Nigerians. As such, it is no surprise that the happenings in Nigeria are of particular interest to the US government. However, the ongoing constitutional crisis and political uncertainty revealed the possibility of American interference in domestic affairs. Such interference could have significant consequences for the future of Nigerian democracy and even Nigerian unity.

RECENT DIPLOMATIC ISSUES

Despite the significant relationship between both countries, in recent years that relationship has experienced some strain. After the 2001 terrorist attack on American targets, Nigeria was listed as a country with terrorist ties. There was a strong response and reaction from the then Obasanjo-led government, eventually leading to Nigeria’s removal from the questionable list. Since then, the US has issued various travel warnings about Nigeria.

In addition, Barack Obama’s decision to make Ghana his first stop in sub-Saharan Africa was considered as a snub by the Nigerian populace. It generated much debate and the ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), even went as far as accusing Obama of seeking to destabilise President Yar’Adua’s administration. The fact that a previous attempt by Yar’Adua to visit the White House was refused only added to the concerns that relations between the countries were deteriorating.

Another source of contention was the recent fallout experienced by Nigeria and Nigerians after a student based in the UK, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to blow up an American airliner. Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian citizen radicalised in the UK, travelled to Yemen to become a terrorist. Despite the fact that his father warned the US authorities, and that America had enough information to prevent his attempt on 25 December 2009, in the days that followed Nigeria was placed on a ‘terror prone’ list. The Nigerian authorities vehemently criticised the US placement of the country on the list, with Dora Akunyili, the minister of information, going as far as saying that the list ‘discriminated‘ against Nigerians. Akunyili even asserted that Nigeria’s inclusion had ‘the potential of undermining longstanding and established US-Nigeria bilateral ties’. The US countered that due to the absence of President Yar’Adua, who left Nigeria in November 2009 for health reasons, their officials had nobody to communicate with.

NIGERIA’S CONSTITUTIONAL CRISIS

On 23 November 2009, Yar’Adua was rushed to Saudi Arabia for a medical emergency. It was later revealed that he suffered from pericarditis, a hardening in the lining of the heart. This was in addition to a pre-existing kidney condition. For over two months, Yar’Adua’s absence raised constitutional questions about how a vice-president can assume the executive power and functions of the president. Section 145 of the constitution was interpreted by many to require the president to issue a letter to the National Assembly asserting intent to temporarily transfer power. However, a court recently ruled that the president is not obligated to formally inform the National Assembly of prolonged absences, thus making the transfer of power automatic when he is away. But, this ruling did not dampen concerns about Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan’s ability to act as president and Jonathan himself played it safe.

THE AMERICAN REACTION

During the uncertainty caused by Yar’Adua’s absence, the US joined France, Britain and the EU to issue a joint statement that stated:

‘We commend [the] determination to address the current situation through appropriate democratic institutions. Nigeria’s continued commitment and adherence to its democratic norms and values are key to addressing the many challenges it faces… We are committed to continue working with Nigeria on the internal issues it faces while working together as partners on the global stage.’

A week and a half after this statement, both bodies of the National Assembly, with the support of all state governors, declared Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan Nigeria’s acting president. While many appreciated this crafty resolution of a 79-day-long constitutional crisis that was grinding the business of the nation to a halt, the legality of the action became a concern. The US, nonetheless, immediately praised Nigeria for its ‘democratic handover’ and on the very day that he was declared acting president, Jonathan was visited by the US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.

At an event honouring 50 important Nigerians in Abuja, former American Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice towed the American line, stating:

‘I am certain that Nigerians would find within their democratic institutions a way to deal with the current crisis that you have; but with that said, my prayers are with your President and my prayers are with your Acting President with whom I met … and with all of your other leaders who must lead Nigeria through this critical time.’

She continued: ‘If we … reaffirm the principle that Nigerian democracy will be strong and honourable and deliver for its people, I am quite certain that we will look back and say “a job well done”‘

This encouraging tune soon changed once it was reported that Yar’Adua had returned from Saudi Arabia. Johnnie Carson issued a statement in which the American government expressed its concerns:

‘Nigeria needs a strong, healthy, and effective leader to ensure the stability of the country and to manage Nigeria’s many political, economic, and security challenges. Recent reports, however, continue to suggest that President Yar’Adua’s health remains fragile and that he may still be unable to fulfill the demands of his office.

‘We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisors to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process … As a nation of 150 million people, Nigeria’s democracy and its continued adherence to constitutional rule should be the highest priority.’

EVIDENCE OF INTERFERENCE

Beyond this and other strongly worded statements, news reports now allege that Yar’Adua’s return was spurred by American intervention. Specifically, it appears that American officials advised their Saudi allies to send Yar’Adua back to Nigeria. Because a Nigerian envoy was prevented from seeing Yar’Adua while in Jeddah, America allegedly warned of the ‘major international and diplomatic problems’ that could arise from that action. Additionally, the air ambulance used to transport Yar’Adua to Nigeria was allegedly provided by an American medical firm.

Furthermore, Johnnie Carson and US Ambasador to Nigeria Robin Sanders held a two-hour visit with former military dictator Ibrahim Babangida while Yar’Adua was in Saudi Arabia. This action has raised ire and suspicion in the press, with reports that the Obama administration wants Babangida to replace Yar’Adua, assuming he resigns or is impeached. A comment by an American spokesperson only stoked the flames when an anonymous State Department official clarified that the US government does not refer to Babangida as a ‘former military dictator… We see him as a former head of state [and an] influential leader in the northern part of the country.’ The US government officially stated that the visit was to commiserate with Babangida on the recent loss of his wife since he is a former head of state and member of the Nigerian Council of State.

INTERFERENCE COULD BACKFIRE

By dabbling so openly in Nigeria’s political affairs, the US will likely increase certain tensions. Specifically, Johnnie Carson’s visit to Jonathan on the day he became acting president must be interpreted as the US government’s support of the act. While that in itself is not an issue, such support lends credence to the belief among many that the Obama administration disliked President Yar’Adua and his supporters. The continuous statements about Yar’Adua’s return by the US only make matters worse because even though Jonathan was made acting president, the constitutionality of that act is in question and has forced the National Assembly and state governors to begin modification of the constitution. The US being seen to take sides will only increase the friction between various interests in the matter.

Additionally, the very public support of Jonathan, and snubbing of Yar’Adua, will serve to weaken whoever eventually becomes president of Nigeria if Yar’Adua were to resign, be impeached or die as president. US dabbling will give opponents of whoever becomes president ample ammunition to accuse that person of being an American puppet. This possibility would not bode well for Nigeria, where politics is a delicate game of tribal and religious concerns and many other crucial factors. A president that is seen as a puppet of anyone, especially a foreign government, will simply be considered a weak leader and will be unable to accomplish much of anything. After Nigeria’s experience with Yar’Adua, who was constantly belittled and whose leadership capacity was constantly questioned, a new leader weakened by American interference will be unforgivable.

It must also be mentioned that while Yar’Adua’s supporters come from all corners of Nigeria, his primary alliance is to the northern elite, which for a long time has worried that it might lose control of the presidency to a southerner. Although unwritten, there is an understanding among Nigeria’s political elite that presidential power will shift from the north to the south every eight years. By snubbing Yar’Adua so publicly and repeatedly, America might force the northern elite to take undemocratic measures in order to ensure their hold on the presidency. This could include a military coup, or, it could encourage the northern elite to place pressure on northern and other politicians to stall the democratic processes being used to iron out Nigeria’s political crisis.

Furthermore, while America has historically been popular in Nigeria, its popularity has decreased significantly in the north due to its anti-terrorism campaign, which is seen to be anti-Muslim. American interference in Nigerian affairs would only increase the distrust of northern Muslims, who would see America as working against their interests and kinsman Yar’Adua. This could also be interpreted as a pro-south measure that would trigger some of the very tribal and religious conflict America claims to want to work with Nigeria to end. America’s interference could therefore deepen the tribal and religious divides that already result in the loss of lives and property, as exemplified in recent Jos fighting.

The meeting of US officials with Babangida is another very public problem that will call into question whether America’s interests actually lie with the Nigerian people. Although the US refuses to acknowledge Babangida as a former dictator, their actions say otherwise. Babangida was previously refused a visa to the US and only recently received one so he could be by his dying wife, who recently lost her battle with cancer in a California hospital. Such duplicity cannot be ignored.

What must also not be ignored is the fact that Babangida is not one of Yar’Adua’s staunchest supporters. In fact, when Yar’Adua was announced as the PDP presidential candidate in 2007, Babangida’s name was mentioned repeatedly as a northern alternative. Also, Babangida embarrassed Yar’Adua shortly after the Guinean coup of 2008. Sent by Yar’Adua to impress upon that nation’s junta that the coup would not be tolerated, Babangida instead returned with praises for the coup plotters. This caused great embarrassment to Yar’Adua and further weakened his position as leader of Nigeria and possibly even the office of the presidency. For America to pay a former dictator and coup supporter a visit of any kind only dispels statements that the US is a supporter of Nigerian democracy and the Nigerian people.

And there is the additional factor of AFRICOM (Africa Command). When America was looking for an Africa headquarters for its military command centre, Yar’Adua, on behalf of Nigeria, rejected outright American overtures to find a home for AFRICOM in Nigeria or within its sphere of influence. While AFRICOM still operates in the waters of West Africa via partnership training programmes with various African governments, it remains an initiative of the US government to find an African location for the outfit. This meeting with Babangida, a former military officer and dictator, raises questions about whether during Yar’Adua’s absence and sickness, Babangida and others will be used to improve America’s chances at securing a Nigerian base for AFRICOM. Doing so will only further allegations that America is solely interested in Nigeria for its sweet bonny crude oil, to the detriment of the people who are yet to benefit from oil sales, particularly those in the Niger Delta. This could spur a return to the violence in the Delta region, which has slowed down but threatens to erupt again given the current state of political uncertainty in Nigeria.

While the Nigeria–US relationship has suffered some bumps along the way, the recent reports and evidence of American interference in Nigerian politics could present future challenges to that relationship and possibly to Nigeria’s future. It remains to be seen whether America’s public dabbling in Nigeria’s current political insecurity will be a success for American interests in Nigeria and the region. But what is certain is that the risks taken by the US in interfering in Nigerian politics will have a lasting impact on Nigeria now and in the future. The only question is whether this lasting impact will be negative or positive. For Nigeria’s sake, one hopes that it will be positive, but only the future will tell.

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* Funmi Feyide-John is a Nigerian lawyer and writer living in Washington DC.
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