Nigeria's approach to the absence from the country of its president, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, sick since November, underlines painfully why the rest of the world does not take it as seriously as it might.
Nigeria is a nation of 135 million, the largest population in Africa. It has very considerable oil wealth, which means that, if it wished, it could maintain an exemplary high standard of living for its people. Second, its size and wealth, if used properly, could make the West African state a major world power, again, if its assets were used effectively.
Instead, Nigeria seems to be known in the world largely for crooked bank schemes apparently initiated from its shores by would-be e-mail bandits, and, most recently, for having been the country of origin of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day would-be underpants bomber. This latest caper managed to put Nigerians on the list of suspect travelers, to the despair and fury of Nigerians in general.
Nigerians themselves sometimes profess not to know why as a nation they are not taken seriously, or are taken seriously but in unfortunate ways. At the same time, the current situation of the Nigerian presidency can be seen as a prime example of the kind of bungling in governance that puts them up for ridicule.
Nigeria's current president, Mr. Yar'Adua, was elected in 2007 for a four-year term. In November he fell ill and left the country for medical care in Saudi Arabia. In leaving, although it was clear that his illness was grave, he did not take the necessary constitutional steps to transfer power to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan. Now, not only is he gone, but also Mr. Jonathan is in a weak position to exercise the powers of the presidency with his legitimacy in question.
Mr. Yar'Adua has been heard from only once, in a shaky radio address purportedly from his sickbed.
Nor do Nigerians seem to want to hold new presidential elections, another option that would be open to them. The reason for that is that presidential elections sometimes set off an alarming paroxysm of political wrangling, basically between the country's predominantly Muslim north and its mainly Christian south. What makes contests for the presidency so dangerous in Nigeria, apart from the regional and religious divisions, is the fact that the stakes are high -- primary access to the country's huge oil wealth -- and the historically coup-prone Nigerian military is always one contender for that prize.
The problem is that, absent a solution, the country drifts, sometimes alarmingly, and, not surprisingly, the Nigerians and the rest of the world ask themselves where is the leadership of this large, rich, talented nation -- a fair question.