Leader's 'Disappearance' Comes at a Tricky Time for U.S.-Nigerian Relations

Forget Austin Powers. The real "international man of mystery" is President Umaru Yar'Adua of Nigeria, who has not been seen in public since Nov. 23. Yar'Adua's disappearance has touched off a firestorm of controversy in Nigeria, Africa's most populous nation. Experts say government in the major oil-producing nation has basically ground to a halt.%%DynaPub-Enhancement class="enhancement contentType-HTML Content fragmentId-1 payloadId-61603 alignment-right size-small"%% Nigeria's media is filled with contradictory accounts, with some saying Yar'Adua, who has a history of ill health, is on the mend, while others say he lies in a coma in a hospital in Saudi Arabia. Outside experts say they don't know what to believe and are concerned that Nigeria could descend into political chaos if the mystery of the president's whereabouts is not solved soon.

'A Country That Matters'

"We are talking about a country that matters," says John Campbell, Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies of the Council on Foreign Relations, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007. Campbell reckons Yar'Adua is probably not dead, but he is not sure what to believe. "Since he has been there (at the hospital), virtually no one has seen him except his wife," he says.

The president probably is still alive because If Yar'Adua were to die, his Muslim faith would require an almost immediate burial, Campbell adds. Yar'Adua is unusual as Nigerian politicians go. For one thing, he only has one wife. Yar'Adua also is the first Nigerian president to have a university degree. Experts say he is not especially popular,

For now, the Obama administration seems to be remaining on the sidelines. A spokesman for the U.S. State Department had no immediate comment. Royal Dutch Shell Oil Plc. (RDS.A), whose presence in Nigeria dates back seven decades, and Chevron Corp (CVX), which has extensive offshore interests there, declined to comment to DailyFinance as did Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM). The head of a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce visiting Nigeria this week could not immediately be reached.

No Impact On Oil Production, Yet

"So far there is no immediate sign of the President's absence having any impact on Nigeria's oil production or exports, although it is clearly provoking political controversy in the country," says Platts Chief Editor Richard Swann, in an email to DailyFinance.

A group of Nigerian politicians recently asked Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud about President Yar'Adua's rumored presence in the kingdom, demanding information on the state of the president's health. Some media reports said Yar'Adua recently spoke to several political leaders.

But as the Daily Nation of Kenya points out on its website "none of the three key officials of the Yar'Adua administration spoke directly on the said telephone conversations, which allegedly took place with the President.".

Observers Questioned His Election

According to the Times of London, Nigerian opposition leaders are demanding "visual proof that the Nigerian President is still alive and fit to govern." Rumors abound in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, that Yar'Adua's cronies are doing his work for him, such as signing the country's budget. A lawsuit in Nigeria seeks to get a court to rule that it is unconstitutional for a president to travel abroad to seek medical attention without transferring power to the vice president.

Yar'Adua is a chemist by training who came into power in 2007 in elections that outside observers claim were not fair. The European Union claimed that 300 people died during the campaign, according to the BBC. He along with Nigerian Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian, were hand-picked by former military ruler Olusegun Obasanjo.

Muslims and Christians share Nigeria's top job in an unofficial understanding, meant to preserve peace in the country of more than 115 million, which may be undermined by the president's absence, according to Campbell.

Disappearance Comes At Critical Time

Worry about Yar'Adua's whereabouts comes at a tricky time in U.S.-Nigerian relations. A Nigerian man has been charged with trying to blow up a U.S. airliner on Christmas Day. President Obama also is counting on Nigeria to help fight Al-Qaeda's growing influence in the region. None of these policy goals of the U.S. government would be possible without a political leader in Abuja.

Unfortunately, as Richard Downie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes, no one has a clue where he is or even if he is still alive at a time when the U.S. is increasingly dependent on Nigerian oil.

"Your guess is as good as mine," he tells DailyFinance.
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