The elected president of Nigeria, Umaru Yar’Adua, passed away last night. Yar’Adua had not been seen in public since he fell ill last November and was subsequently transfered to Saudia Arabia for medical treatment. While his death naturally represents a political milestone for the country — this is the first time a democratically elected leader has died while in office — it appears the consequences of Yar’Adua’s passing are not likely to affect the country’s stability. Nigeria’s acting president since February, Goodluck Jonathan, has already been sworn in as head of state.

So, given this new configuration of power in Nigeria, what can we expect in the months ahead?

Goodluck Jonathan asserts his leadership

Since becoming acting president in February, Jonathan has worked to entrench his power and legitimize his leadership. He’s sacked and reconfigured his cabinet and is freeing himself from the influence of Yar’Adua’s closest political supporters. Now, as the Nigerian newspaper Next notes, “Mr. Jonathan no longer has Mr. Yar’Adua’s shadows hanging over him,” which will allow him to pursue his policies and political goals with greater ease. Election reform, for instance, is high on the agenda, and Jonathan already recently sacked the country’s broadly criticized election chief, Maurice Iwu. Moving forward, now as the full-fledged head of state, Jonathan will certainly face challenges. His legitimacy as president was not mandated by a public election, and, as Christian southerner, he will likely continue to face opposition from Muslim northeners, who also happen to be Yar’Adua’s policital base. That said, in spite of the inevitable political wranglings regarding the vice-presidency and other offices, Jonathan seems to have the necessary support – at home and abroad – to pursue his agenda of election reform, fighting corruption and promoting good governance in advance of next year’s critical election.

The challenge of free and fair elections in Africa’s most populous country

The 2007 election in Nigeria, which saw the victory of Yar’Adua, was the first (and therefore extremely significant) democratic election since 1999. But the 2011 election is no less critical. Katrin Verclas, who is involved with upcoming election monitoring efforts in the country, told UN Dispatch that “the incomplete legacy of Yar’Adua’s reform agenda and the very interesting technoratic nature of Goodluck Jonathan who both, in their ways, focused on relatively good governance and anti-corruption, puts a ‘clean’ election at least rhetorically on the map.” She added that Nigeria’s clout as an economic powerhouse and its vast natural resources are also elements that contribute to the significance of this election at the regional level.

The impact of Nigerian politics on the sub-region

That the upcoming elections in Nigeria are free and fair will matter for the region, which has seen a number of challenges to democratic rule in recent times. Coups led by military juntas in Guinea and Niger, as well as the continued absence of legitimate leadership in Guinea-Bissau and Cote d’Ivoire, have contributed to a sense that democracy was slipping away in West Africa. While Nigeria – which currently holds the presidency of ECOWAS – has been on the political frontlines of resolving issues in Guinea and Niger, having a genuinely democratically elected leadership in place will likely make these conflict resolution efforts much more legitimate. Furthermore, when it comes to natural resource management and anti-corruption efforts, Nigeria has the potential to play a strong leadership role, and set an example and a standard for its neighbors.

Regional analysts have noted, however, that countries in the region are not necessarily seeking Nigeria’s influence, nor are they looking for the leadership of a “regional hegemon.” According to one observer who spoke with UN Dispatch, West African countries feel that growing Nigerian influence in regional and global institutions could be potentially dangerous for them; the fear, she said, is that Nigeria could “usurp the institutions to its advantage, and won’t advocate strongly for other West African countries.”

Whether Goodluck Jonathan will be able to steer the country towards free, fair and democratic elections next year remains to be seen. But it looks like Nigeria’s new head of state is in a strong position to accomplish this. What this will mean for the rest of the region is unclear. I, for one, believe that a strong, healthy leadership in Nigeria could only benefit the rest of the region, where democratic institutions have been slowly eroding and impunity continues to rule.

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