Thursday, May 6, 2010

Goodluck, Jonathan

You would think that the death of the president of Africa’s most populous nation would rate more than a passing mention on the news. But apparently that’s not the case, as the death of President Umaru Yar'Adua scored only a few short blurbs on the cable news channels today. Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in this morning as president, a role he has been filling since February in the wake of a lingering heart ailment that had effectively removed Yar'Adua from office last November.

The lack of interest over the death of Yar'Adua illustrates the misplaced priorities of both the American press and foreign policy services, which pay too much attention to developments in the Middle East and not nearly enough to what’s happening in Africa. The oft-stated reasons for America’s fixation on the Middle East usually come down to oil and terrorism. But Africa is on pace to surpass the Persian Gulf in terms of oil export to the United States by mid-decade; the Associated Press notes that in January, Nigeria was America’s 4th largest oil supplier, surpassing Saudi Arabia in the process. At the same time, al-Qaeda’s most active franchise operations are increasingly located in Africa, including al-Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) located in Algeria and operating through northwestern Africa; and Islamic groups like al-Shabab operating in Somalia, but with designs on the whole Horn of Africa region. But despite Africa’s growing relevance to American energy and security interests, attention tends only to fall on the continent when a war breaks out, or a natural disaster (or some other kind of humanitarian crisis) occurs.

President Yar'Adua brought a measure of stability to Nigeria, which had suffered through a number of military coups in the half-century since gaining independence (Yar’Adua’s election was the first peaceful transfer of power in the nation’s history), in part by bridging differences between the Christian south and Muslim north. But he also plunged the country into a constitutional crisis as his inner circle tried to cling to power after Yar'Adua had been taken gravely ill in November. Yar'Adua was taken to Saudi Arabia for treatment; it was only after he had been absent from the country for months before public pressure built enough to allow Goodluck Jonathan to assume title of acting president. According to Phillip van Niekerk in today’s Huffington Post, that the story of Yar'Adua’s illness even became a matter of public record was only due to some intrepid investigative journalism by Next, a Lagos-based newspaper. Next resisted official pressure from Yar'Adua loyalists, and even Nigeria’s State Security Service, to run a story in January claiming that Yar'Adua’s condition had deteriorated to the point where he did not recognize friends and family – despite official claims that he was “recovering.” The story prompted the parliament into action, and finally brought Jonathan into power.

Perhaps the American press corps could take a lesson or two on the need to report important stories…
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