Nigeria lawmakers vote to make VP acting president

Nigeria’s parliament today voted to hand Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the powers of president, a move intended to fill the vacuum left by President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua's hospitalization in November.

George Osodi/AP/File
In this May 29, 2007 file photo, Nigerian vice President Goodluck Jonathan (center) stands with President Umaru Yar'Adua (right) and former President Olusegun Obasanjo. On Tuesday, Nigeria's parliament made Jonathan acting president.

Nigeria’s Senate and House of Representatives today voted to give Vice President Goodluck Jonathan the powers of president, a move aimed at ending a 2 1/2-month political crisis that has sparked unease across Africa's most populous nation.

The measures set the stage for the temporary transfer of power from President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who has been undergoing medical treatment in Saudi Arabia since late November.

The power vacuum during Mr. Yar'Adua's absense has imposed a heavy cost on America's No. 3 oil supplier. Since he's been gone, Muslim-Christian riots killed scores in the country’s northern region, a young Nigerian man attempted to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day, and rebels from the country's oil-rich Niger Delta pulled out of a landmark peace deal citing lack of government attention.

The temporary transfer of full presidential power to Mr. Jonathan may make some breathe easier, but the debate over how and whether to replace Yar’Adua has divided the country’s political class along dangerous regional and religious lines. Politicians from the mainly Muslim north are irked that Jonathan, a Christian southerner, is now running things while Yar’Adua, a Muslim from the north, remains in hospital in Saudi Arabia.

Yar'Adua's long absence caused some within his own party to speculate that the leader was in a coma or even dead. Yar’Adua put those rumors to rest by giving a phone interview from his hospital bed with BBC radio, in which he vowed to return once he had recovered.

With at least half of his cabinet coming from the north, it is not at all certain that the Council of Ministers will vote to accept the handover on Wednesday. Whatever the vote, there is a potential for a public outcry.

Momentum for Yar’Adua’s replacement does appear to be building.

Prof. Dora Akunyili, the minister of information, presented the cabinet with a memo recommending that Yar’Adua step down. Noting that many government functions – including the appointment of top bureaucrats and the passing of legislation – have stalled, Professor Akunyili wrote: “The looming crisis in the system is over boiling. Our hard-earned democracy is being threatened by the day.”

If there is any good news, it is that there are no signs that the Nigerian military is contemplating a coup d’etat. Nearly half of Nigeria’s history as an independent nation has been under military dictatorships, but Nigeria’s military has taken a step away from politics in the past decade, and many Nigerian politicians say that there is no public hunger for their return.

“Nobody is [pushing] for the military to come to power,” says Mr. Okechukwu, the CNPP spokesman. “We want to give democracy a try. Despite all of its flaws, it is the best system.”

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