Nigeria president still out: VP Goodluck Jonathan takes over

In Nigeria, a federal court ruled Vice President Goodluck Jonathan could take on the duties of the absent Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua. But his authority is likely to be challenged in court and the political crisis is not over, analysts say.

Afolabi Sotunde / Reuters
Policemen stand in a truck during a protest rally against Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua's long absence without handing over power, in the capital Abuja Tuesday.

A federal court handed Nigeria’s vice-president the power to carry out state affairs while his boss, President Umaru Yar’Adua, continues treatment in a Saudi Arabian hospital.

Seven weeks of constitutional confusion have followed Mr. Yar’Adua’s sudden departure because he did not tell the National Assembly that he was going and did not officially pass the baton to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan.

A judge in the capital, Abuja, on Wednesday ruled that Mr. Jonathan had the authority to take the reins in a judgment which immediately brought claims of skulduggery from demonstrators and those in the political opposition. Nigeria's political crisis has not been solved by this ruling, say analysts.

Opponents have been increasingly pushing for prescribed constitutional mechanisms designed to pass on power in case the president is incapacitated.

Three separate court cases were due to open in Abuja on Thursday, all aimed at forcing the president’s office to concede control to Mr. Jonathan. But Wednesday’s surprise hearing – few in Abuja knew that the case was scheduled – led to each of the other three legal hearings being adjourned.

Officially, power has not been handed to the vice president, a little known former governor of one of Nigeria’s oil-producing southern states. Instead, Wednesday’s court ruling simply stated that other sections of the constitution allow Mr. Jonathan to carry out the functions of the presidency even if powers have not officially been handed over.

Yar'Adua spoke publicly Monday

“This is completely illegal,” said Benedict Ezeagu, an Abuja barrister and national secretary of the newly-formed Lawyers of Conscience pressure group.
“It may seem very technical, but it’s of crucial importance – we now have no idea who really is in charge of this country, who can enact laws, who represents us at this very trying time."

“The constitution, such as it is, is there to assist us at exactly times like this,” says Ezeagu.

Yar’Adua has been plagued with health problems since before he was elected in a disputed poll in 2007. He left for the King Faisal hospital in Jeddah on Nov. 23. He was not seen or heard from for 50 days until he gave a brief interview to the BBC’s Hausa language radio service late on Monday. Hausa is widely spoken across Nigeria’s majority Muslim north, where Mr. Yar’Adua is from.

He sounded weak, but said he was "getting better" and promised to return to work as soon as his doctors agreed to it. No date was given.

His absence has thrown Africa’s most populous nation, which supplies almost a fifth of US oil, into even more of a political tailspin than it was before he left, when claims of inaction were regularly leveled at the presidency.

Since the president left, a peace process in the Niger Delta has effectively ground to a halt, with one militant group, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, declaring it ‘dead’ and threatening to rescind their ceasefire.

Gas supplies have almost run out, because extra import licenses sit unsigned on the president’s desk. Almost no new legislation has been approved.

“Just because a court says that the VP can carry on where the president left off does not mean that the crisis is past,” said a Western diplomat in Abuja.
“There’re likely to be series of legal challenges to anything Goodluck signs or agrees in the next few weeks, from people keen to agitate this situation to their political profit. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

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