Hidden leaders: vacuums of leadership

What happens when a head of state goes AWOL?

The aptly named Goodluck Jonathan took over as acting president of Nigeria this week, filling the vacuum left by the long absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua. It's not as unusual as you might think: other heads of state have been ill, have died, or have simply not been there much of the time.

But let's begin with the case of Nigeria today:

1. President Umaru Yar'Adua (Nigeria)

Yar'Adua has not been seen in public since he went to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment on 23 November 2009. The Nigerian constitution requires the president to inform parliament formally of his absence before power can be transferred -- but he didn't do this before he flew out of Abuja, leaving his country leaderless.

Conspiracy theories abounded, variously that he was dead, brain-dead, or no longer in hospital. The past three months have been fraught with legal challenges, cabinet splits, mass protests, and tensions resurfacing in the Niger Delta. Eventually, the National Assembly voted in favour of Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan stepping in. It remains to be seen how successful he will be in ending the turmoil.

2. Kim Jong-il (North Korea)

The whereabouts of the elusive North Korean leader have been the subject of heavy speculation since 2008. In August that year, Toshimitsu Shigemura, a Japanese academic and expert on North Korea, claimed that the Great Leader had died in late 2003 and been replaced at public appearances by stand-ins, previously employed to protect him from assassination attempts.

On a slightly less far-fetched note, questions about Kim's health were raised when he failed to appear at a military parade for the 60th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, on 9 September 2008. US intelligence agencies believed that he could be "gravely ill" after suffering a major stroke, although Pyongyang downplayed this.

Various reports have suggested that he has since suffered a second stroke, or that he has pancreatic cancer. The Times has questioned the veracity of at least one photograph released to prove that he is still alive. However, Kim met with Bill Clinton in August last year to negotiate the release of two Americans. No doubt conspiracy theorists would say that Clinton met with one of his impersonators.

3. Fidel Castro (Cuba)

The long-time Cuban leader handed over power to his brother, Raúl, in July 2006, and resigned from the presidency in 2008. But this followed years of speculation about Castro's health, beginning in 1998 with the rumour -- since discredited -- that he has a terrible brain disease.

The belief that his health was failing gathered force in 2004, when the mayor of Bogotá said that he "seemed very sick to me", and the following year when the CIA said he had Parkinson's disease (which he denied).

Since then, it has been widely accepted that he is seriously sick, with some speculating that he has a terminal illness. On reports of his recovery, George W Bush said: "One day the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away." Although he has officially retired from public affairs, Cubans still worry that he might be dead.

4. Lansana Conté (Guinea)

Conté became Guinea's leader by staging a coup d'état in 1984. On falling ill in 2006, he was reluctant to relinquish power, creating a leadership vacuum that led to an outbreak of violence. In April 2006, he was flown to Morocco for medical treatment, amid riots in Guinea over the price of rice and fuel. He returned, but was physically and mentally incapacitated, leaving the door open for his wife, Henriette, to flout the rule of law.

Despite his illness, Conté insisted he would stay in office until the end of his term in 2010. A general strike brought the country to a halt for two weeks in 2007, hundreds of thousands of workers taking to the streets to protest against his leadership.

Many died in violent clashes with security forces. The strike came to an end when Conté agreed to appoint a new prime minister, Lansana Kouyaté, as acting head of government. Yet he declared on television that year: "I'm the boss, others are my subordinates." He then undermined Kouyaté and soon replaced him with another proxy.

Conté died of natural causes in December 2008. Within hours of the new prime minister announcing his death, junior army officers staged a coup, bringing Captain Moussa Dadis Camara to power. His junta failed to bring stability to Guinea. Last September, a contingent of presidential guardsmen massacred more than 150 opposition supporters at a rally in the capital, Conakry. Then, in December, an aide to Camara shot him in the head; he was flown out to Morocco for medical treatment.

On 13 January, after an absence of six weeks, Camara left Morocco for Burkina Faso. He is yet to return from there to Guinea, but in his absence an official investigation declared him free of all responsibility for the September massacre.

5. Saparmurat Niyazov (Turkmenistan)

And finally, a potential crisis of leadership that ended well. You might not have heard of Saparmurat Niyazov, the Turkmen dictator, who was compared to Stalin and -- yes -- Kim Jong-il for his draconian rule.

Criticised internationally as one of the world's most repressive dictators, he encouraged a bizarre cult of personality, renaming months of the year after members of his family, and replacing the word for bread with his mother's name. He also banned the opera and the circus for not being Turkmen enough.

When he died in December 2006, the oil- and gas-rich central Asian nation was left in turmoil as essentially he was the entire state. Happily, fears that the vacuum created by his death would lead to a power struggle between different regions, or even civil war, were not realised. Vice-President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow took over, repealing some of Niyazov's stranger policies, and tentatively opened up relations with the west.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.