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Between Nigeria and Egypt’s presidential crises
Abiodun Awolaja examines the impasse which the ill health of the Nigerian and Egyptian presidents has generated in both countries, concluding that democracy may be the victim of the current situation.
Although Nigeria and Egypt occupy different domains on Africa’s geographical space, they have emerged from only slightly different historical confluences. Both countries rank as the most populous countries in the Arab world and Africa respectively and, indeed, the two countries are currently facing a similar crisis: presidential ill health and succession questions. In both countries, the current stalemate was initiated by the failing health of their presidents, who share a common faith and, presumably, a common ideological ground, as Nigeria is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC), a fact which has often proved morbidly uncomfortable for the country’s Southern intelligentsia, who have always harped on its secular constitution.
While Umaru Yar’Adua, the Nigerian president, who is suffering from pericarditis, a heart condition, was, on Wednesday February 24, smuggled into the country by members of his now infamous and dissolved kitchen cabinet, the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, 81, underwent surgery in Germany on March 6 over gall bladder trouble and a benign growth in the lining of his small intestine.However, unlike Yar’Adua who blatantly refused to hand over power, through the National Assembly, to his deputy while embarking on his Saudi trip, Mubarak, who has not had a deputy since taking over power in 1981, following the assassination of former President Awwal Sadat, handed over power, albeit temporarily, to his Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif, before his operation.
Expectedly, as it was the case with Yar’Adua, there had been growing concern over Mubarak’s health, even as succession permutations took the centre stage in the North African country’s political discourse. Despite assurances by his doctors that the president had been responding well to treatment, the rumour mill had been rife with speculations that the ailing president might have given up the ghost. However, footages of Mubarak appeared on state television on March 16, showing the president moving his hands. In addition, Safwat el-Sheriff, Secretary-General of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), said in rather quaint English : “I am calling Germany daily, and the president is in top health and condition. Everyday, his condition is moving faster than the medical team expects, and he will appear before citizens soon in the media.’’
In a similar vein, while the Nigerian president was in Saudi Arabia, a three-minute report was aired on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), where the president reportedly expressed optimism that he would be back in office soon, and wished the Super Eagles, the Nigerian senior national football team then campaigning for honours in Angola,the best of luck in its endeavour.However, despite President Yar’Adua’s reported return to the country, the stalemate occasioned by his non-transference of power to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, was not resolved, although the National Assembly had empowered Jonathan as acting president based on the doctrine of necessity.
The stalemate was not merely because the president was reportedly smuggled into the country in an unconscious state; members of his kitchen cabinet had refused to allow Jonathan access to his principal. And, although the acting president, last week, dissolved the cabinet, an air of uncertainty still pervades the country over the ailing president’s unavailability and the National Assembly’s apparent unwillingness to impeach him despite his grave violations of the constitution, even in the face of his administration’s much-touted doctrines of adherence to the rule of law and due process.
Besides, despite the difference in the availability of information about both presidents in the two countries, analysts have continued to note the precariousness of their situation. Commenting on the power vacuum in Egypt, Professor Hassan Nafaa, a University of Cairo-based political scientist, said: “Egypt is facing a serious and critical moment. This will make it worse, certainly.’’ Nafaa’s “this’’ refers to the purported plan by the ailing president to make his second son, Gamal Mubarak, whom he had reportedly been grooming for that role since his brother, Alaa Mubarak, faded out of the political scene in 2000 following allegations of monumental corruption, to succeed him as the candidate of` the NDP in the 2011 presidential election, a claim the ruling party has always contested.
However, this has not stemmed fears that Mubarak is bent on returning the country to a kind of hereditary pseudo-monarchy, especially given the rising influence and visibility of Gamal, who has succeeded in conscripting a newer and younger generation of neo-liberals into the party. Thus, the return to the country of El Baradei, a former United Nations’ nuclear specialist and highly favoured presidential material to the country, has added a new twist to the scenario, as he is expected to provide an alternative to the Mubarak climate. El Bradei is widely seen as being more qualified than Gamal, a business mogul who heads the NDP’s policy secretariat.
Analysts say that even if the ailing president returns to the country in good health, the current scenario is still likely to affect next year’s election since the opposition would use the fact of his illness to campaign against him if he decides to run for another six-year term. Mustapha al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo, said : “If the president does not decide to be the NDP’s candidate, it (the party) will still have to decide whether Gamal Mubarak would be its candidate, or it would have to look for somebody else capable of facing a person like Mohammed El Baradei. It is important for the NDP to demonstrate that it has experienced, capable candidates, and I don’t think these two qualities are met by Gamal Mubarak.’’
However, Sayyid’s refusal to take the incumbency factor into account would seem rather strange, particularly given the country’s experinec in 2005, when the presidential election was allegedly mindlessly rigged by Mubarak to retain power. The NDP was accused by international observers who monitored the election of mass rigging, using government vehicles to convey public employees to vote for Mubarak; allowing illegal votes by non-registered voters, and other vices.
In Nigeria, although Jonathan has been precluded from next year’s election on account of an extra-constitutional agreement by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party that power must remain in the North, it is far from clear what the fate of Yar’Adua or members of his party like Governor Danjuma Goje of Gombe State, whose campaign posters are already flooding the streets of Ibadan, Oyo State, will be, or whether the election will, indeed, be free and fair.
Sadly, many analysts have noted the near absence of democratic finesse in the activities of political gladiators featuring in the crises in the two major African countries. In Nigeria and Egypt, going by past records, it is almost suicidal to expect a free and fair 2011 presidential election, barring a miracle.