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Published: Thursday, 5/13/2010

Nigeria's transition

NIGERIA appears to have reached a satisfying end to six months of uncertainty about its president.

Last week, it inaugurated Goodluck Jonathan, a former vice president who had been acting president while President Umaru Yar'Adua had been seriously ill, out of the country for most of the time, and out of sight since he returned in February. He died May 5, clearing the way for the inauguration of Mr. Jonathan as his successor.

Americans have a stake in a stable, healthy Nigeria. It has a population of 150 million, the largest in Africa, and is the third-largest provider of U.S. petroleum imports.

Mr. Jonathan is firmly in office, but it would be unrealistic to imagine that the country's presidential drama will pause for long. Nigeria has a history of military coups overthrowing civilian governments. Its military has a hyperactive interest in laying its hands on as much of the oil wealth as possible.

The question of who occupies the presidency at any given time is affected in part by the fact that the country is roughly divided in half, with the north mostly Muslim and the south mostly Christian. It was the Muslims' turn for two terms with Mr. Umaru, a Muslim northerner. As is customary, a Christian southerner, Mr. Jonathan, was his vice president.

Muslims believe that, to retain the rotation, Mr. Jonathan should name a Muslim vice president who would then become president in next year's election.

Mr. Jonathan does not appear to dispute the concept, but he is already stepping out as president, naming a new cabinet and becoming more activist, causing some Nigerians to think he should be the next elected president. Nigeria's armed forces, among whom Muslim northerners predominate, are watching events closely.

In the meantime, there are plenty of problems for Mr. Jonathan to address. The first is a simmering rebellion in the Niger River delta, his native area, where most of Nigeria's oil is produced. Second, Nigeria has been rocked by the instability of the world economy and cursed by corruption.

Probably the best outcome for Nigeria (and for the United States) would be for Mr. Jonathan to make clear his intention to respect the presidential rotation, and at the same time tackle the country's problems vigorously.



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