A leaderless country cannot lead West Africa

Nigeria is so riddled by internal violence and paralysed by political intrigue that it is jeopardising its opportunity - and responsibility - to lead the region.

With nearly 160 million people, a vast land mass and natural riches that are the envy of every other nation in its neighbourhood, a well-governed Nigeria should be the uncontested power of West Africa and the locomotive of African development. But this giant is so riddled by internal violence and paralysed by political intrigue that it is jeopardising its opportunity - and responsibility - to lead.

Since January, a cycle of violence has erupted in Plateau state and around the city of Jos. Hundreds of civilians have been killed, most recently in a massacre on Sunday of at least 380 Christian villagers. The violence has split along religious lines and calls for independent investigations have not yet been heeded. These brutal events, by no means isolated in Nigeria's history, reflect that governance is breaking down in Lagos. In recent months, the country went from being leaderless to effectively having two presidents. The incumbent Umaru Yar'Adua went to Saudi Arabia for heart surgery, staying there for three months, and leaving a vacuum that the vice president Goodluck Jonathan eventually filled.

Mr Yar'Adua has recently returned home, and is reportedly, but unverifiably, governing from the same palace as Mr Jonathan. The constitutional and political headache that has ensued only compounds the infighting between the two camps. If the crisis was contained at the top, however, Nigeria's ills would almost be fixable. But it is having ripple effects at the ground level, demonstrated by Lagos's failure to rein in the violence in Plateau state.

Indeed, Nigeria's diverse population and recurrent waves of tribal and sectarian violence have imposed a delicate power sharing system between the Muslim northerners and Christian southerners. The presidency rotates between the two communities, although each presidential ticket must include one representative of each. And yet, in the absence of improved governance and with approaching elections, this division of power has perpetuated sectarian politics.

The confusion is also felt in the Niger delta. The most promising development under Mr Yar'Adua was a truce reached last year with insurgents in exchange for a commitment for investments in the region, which is the main source of Nigeria's oil wealth. But the central government has at best been slow to deliver. If better governance does not take hold, then the Nigerian state will have to cope with many more of these uprisings.

One hopes that the financial urgency, if not the horrific bloodshed, will prompt the central authorities to wake up. Oil production, which accounts for 80 per cent of the federal budget, dropped to 1.94 million barrels per day in February due to attacks on the infrastructure and the reluctance of international oil companies to invest. The first item, however, is to answer a simple question: who rules Nigeria now?