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Nigeria’s Sick Man Democracy

How sick is Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua? In May, he admitted during a live television broadcast that he suffers from a kidney ailment, but sought to quell rumors that he was terminally ill by insisting that fears for his health are greatly exaggerated and politically motivated. There are plenty of world leaders in less-than-perfect health. But the stakes are especially high in Nigeria, where Yar’Adua embodies the country’s delicate political balance.

With the fall of Nigeria’s dictatorship and the introduction of democracy in 1999, governors in the mainly Muslim northern provinces believed they had struck a deal with their southern counterparts on a regional rotation of the country’s presidency. In 2007, arguing that it was their turn to choose a chief executive, they bitterly opposed a bid by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, a southerner and a Christian, to rewrite Nigeria’s constitution in hopes of winning a third term. Southern governors countered that the north had controlled the country through more than three decades of authoritarian rule and that a southerner should hold the presidency for years to come. Tensions mounted.

Once it became clear that his gambit would fail, Obasanjo found a compromise: he named a man he trusted, Yar’Adua, a little-known northern governor and devout Muslim, as his preferred successor. In April 2007, Yar’Adua won a disputed landslide presidential victory. Western and African observers charged that widespread vote-rigging had tainted the official result, and Nigeria’s Supreme Court has yet to rule on challenges to the election’s legality.

But Yar’Adua shrugged off charges of electoral fraud, and in the first days of his presidency, he drew praise, both at home and abroad, for promises to tackle corruption and pursue an agreement with militia groups in the oil-rich, violence-plagued Niger Delta region. In reaching out to armed groups like the Movement for Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), one of his primary assets has been his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, a native of the area.