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Acting Nigerian President Consolidates Power Amid Unrest

Published on Sunday 21st March 2010 Acting Nigerian President Consolidates Power Amid Unrest

This week, acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan dissolved his cabinet, further securing his tenuous hold on the country's top post amidst rising unrest in the Niger Delta and flaring religious tensions in the central region of the country.

On Wednesday, Goodluck dismissed all of ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua's ministers, effectively allowing the acting president to appoint ministers of his choosing.

Yar'Adua, who has been receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia for three months, returned to Nigeria on Feb. 24 amidst a heavy military presence at the airport, but hasn't been seen since.

"[Jonathan] did not give us any reason for the dissolution of the cabinet," said Dora Akunyili, the information minister, in a short statement released on Wednesday.

On Feb. 10, Nigeria's National Assembly voted to make Goodluck the acting president. Since then, Goodluck's aggressive power consolidation has furthered the hopes of many Nigerians hopes that reform is imminent.

"[Jonathan's dissolution of the cabinet] is a signal for many that Goodluck Jonathan is perhaps about to put in place his own men, his own women, his own team," said Al Jazeera's Nigeria correspondent, Yvonne Ndege, on Thursday.

"It was felt by many Nigerians that the cabinet was basically packed to the rafters with Yar'Adua loyalists who weren't doing the job they were supposed to be doing, or rather doing a good enough job," said Ndege.

Questions still remain over who will take on the post of vice president, as well as who will gain the support of the military. With elections due in less than one year, the clock is ticking for Goodluck Jonathan to present a viable path forward.

The military, which holds considerable sway in Nigerian politics, appears to be at odds about the current leadership crisis. John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria between 2004 and 2007, wrote in a recent op-ed in the Huffington Post that "the Nigerian military appears as splintered as the rest of the federal government."

Campbell went on to surmise that some elements within the army are staying loyal to Yar'Adua, as neither Jonathan nor the chief of defense staff - the most senior officer in the military - were notified about Yar'Adua's return.

A large number of military personnel greeted Yar'Adua's plane and escorted his ambulance to the presidential palace upon his return from Saudi Arabia.

It is not clear who wields power in the country at this point, or if Yar'Adua's absence becomes permanent, who will take over.

A new vice president must be approved by majority vote in both houses of the National Assembly and with the absence of a potential candidate who commands enough support in both houses, many are unsure of how to proceed.

The accession of Jonathan - who is Christian - also threatens to derail an informal power-sharing arrangement, in effect since 1999, which rests upon a rotation of the presidency every two terms between the largely Muslim north and the mostly Christian south.

According to the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), since 1999, approximately 13,500 people have died in religious violence that has persisted throughout Plateau State, a region located in the centre of the country, which separates the Muslim north from the Christian south.

Goodluck Jonathan is of the Ijaw, an ethnic group indigenous to the Delta region. Many hope he will take a more pro-active stance between multinational oil corporations, the Nigerian state and the people who live there.

Last week, HRW called on acting President Jonathan to investigate the most recent massacre in Plateau State, around the city of Jos, where over 300 people including women and children were killed.

Spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Robin Waudo, told the BBC, "It seems like these are reprisal attacks from what happened a few weeks ago," referring to an attack on a Muslim village in January that claimed almost 200 lives.

Nigeria's southern Delta region also remains in a state of upheaval.

The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) has recently called off a ceasefire and announced an expansion of their targets to include oil companies, such as Total, who were previously left untouched by the MEND.

Washington's interest in Nigeria has grown as its importance as a source of imported oil has increased in recent years.

The Niger Delta is an impoverished, polluted area that sits on substantial petroleum deposits. It has become one of the world's starkest and most disturbing examples of the "resource curse" - rampant corruption, human rights abuses and poor development indicators that often plague resource-rich countries - according to a recent Amnesty International report.

Last week, a coalition of MEND leaders rejected a long-stalled amnesty deal offered by the government. The bombing of a conference, which was convened to discuss the initiative, followed MENDs refusal of the governments deal.

The Delta's inhabitants have been campaigning for control of their natural resources for years. After the death of Ken Saro-Wiwa, a prominent activist and proponent of non-violence, militant groups such as MEND took centre-stage, employing guerrilla tactics to achieve their aims.

In the last decade, Nigeria has asserted itself as a counterweight on the continent to South Africa's economic and cultural hegemony in sub-Saharan Africa. However, corruption has pervaded government since the 1970's, when oil production was nationalised under a military government - its profits carving out an elite ruling class.

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