Leading article: Nigeria's desperate plight

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If the trial of the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab for attempting to blow up a plane over Detroit draws some attention to his country of origin it can only be for the better. For more than a month now one of Africa's richest and most important states has been without an effective leadership, as its president Umaru Yar'Adua, has disappeared abroad, reportedly to a hospital in Saud Arabia where he lies virtually incommunicado.

In his absence a whole bevy of forces in this fragmented and volatile state are gathering to fill the vacuum. The opposition is insisting that President Yar'Adua's deputy, Jonathan Goodluck, be sworn in as acting head of state in accordance with the country's constitution. Government ministers are bitterly resisting this for fear that a pro-tem arrangement will be converted by the opposition into an effective coup d'etat and are desperately trying to keep up the figment that nothing is untoward with the exercise of government. Possible successors are being groomed by the power brokers from the chief tribes. And in the wings is the army, which has intervened so often in the past to enforce "stability" in the country.

It is a situation which must not be allowed to deteriorate further. Nigeria is far too important a country in the region to be forsaken at this time. Its oil wealth has made it one of the richest nations on the continent. It is a major force in the Organisation of African Unity while its peace keepers have been active in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It is, however, all too vulnerable to collapse, with a near civil war breaking out between Christians and Muslims in the north, a long-running battle with secessionist tribes in the oil rich Niger Delta and rampant corruption throughout the state.

The world outside is not in a position to dictate what happens in Nigeria. Nor should it try. But its neighbours and the West – especially the US – should exercise their influence to seek greater clarity from the government as to the true state of its president and to encourage it to abide by the constitution. At the least this might provide the breathing space in which a proper, civilian succession could be established.

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