Richard Dowden: Ordinary Nigerians might do better without a government at all

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No one would deny that the absence of the President has caused problems for Nigeria. It provoked a constitutional crisis. Under what circumstances should the Vice-President take over? Who should decide: the Attorney General, the courts or Parliament? Should he be an acting or a permanent President? Would he need a Vice-President?

There have also been far-reaching decisions in the President's in-tray concerning the future of Nigeria's oil and telecoms industries. During the crisis over the Christmas Day bomber, Farouk Abdul Mutallab, American officials had no one to pick up the phone to in Abuja, the capital, and so Nigeria was put on a list of countries that produced terrorists. Nigeria was internationally important.

Was there ever a danger that the country would explode or fall apart? No. There has been a fierce political and legal struggle in Abuja, but at no time did that struggle show signs of turning violent. The ruling elite of northern lords surrounding President Yar'Adua kept him on a pretty tight rein even while he was President. And when he was whisked off to Saudi Arabia with a heart condition, they and his wife, Turai, blocked any access to him but ruled in his name. It took 70 days and the combined weight of Parliament, the courts and Nigeria's powerful state governors to prise the Nigerian government from their grip.

Would ordinary Nigerians have felt Yar'Adua's absence? Since the experience of the Nigerian state for most Nigerians is limited to demands for bribes by officials and policemen, the government and who is running it is of little consequence to them. Everything positive in their lives is achieved by themselves in spite of the ruling elite and their officials, not because of it. Many might say that Nigeria would be better off without a government at all.

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society and author of Africa: Alerted States, Ordinary Miracles, published by Portobello Books

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