In a ruling effectively sidelining Nigeria’s absent President, a high court judge decided yesterday that his deputy can take executive decisions, making Goodluck Jonathan the de facto leader of Africa’s most populous country.
“The court verdict has now empowered the Vice President to start assuming the powers of an acting president,” the Attorney-General, Michael Aondoakaa, told reporters after the ruling at a federal court in Abujam, the capital.
President Yar’Adua left Nigeria more than seven weeks ago for Saudi Arabia where he is being treated for acute pericarditis, a heart condition. He has not been seen since. On Tuesday the President broke his silence with a radio interview that did little to reassure Nigerians. “At the moment I’m undergoing treatment, and I’m getting better,” Mr Yar’Adua said in a frail and faltering voice. He assured Nigerians that he would return as soon as his doctors gave him the all clear.
Christopher Onwuekwe, a lawyer, asked the Federal High Court on Monday to rule on Mr Jonathan’s legal position. “By virtue of section 5 of the 1999 Constitution, the Vice President can perform the executive functions of the President pending the time he returns,” Judge Dan Abutu ruled.
On Tuesday hundreds of protesters marched in Abuja to demand that the Vice-President be sworn in as acting president. The high court ruling does not mean that Mr Jonathan is now Nigeria’s President but other lawsuits due to be heard today might yet force Mr Yar’Adua to stand down.
One suit calls for his deputy to be appointed leader, another for his dismissal and a third for all Cabinet decisions taken in his absence to be annulled. Judge Abutu is due to rule on these cases, too.
Mr Yar’Adua’s absence since November 23 has threatened to plunge one of Africa’s biggest oil producers into constitutional crisis because he left without formally handing over power to his deputy.
In the meantime Mr Jonathan has been chairing Cabinet meetings but has been unable to take executive decisions. Last month a key budget document had to be signed by Mr Yar’Adua in his Jedda hospital bed.
Critics say that this has created a power vacuum, paralysing government business, causing delays to much-needed banking and oil sector reforms and threatening to undermine an embryonic peace process in the oil-rich Niger Delta where militants have kidnapped oil workers and sabotaged pipelines.
The judgment could have serious repercussions in Nigeria, which shook off decades of military rule only in 1999. It is an ethnically diverse country of 150 million people, roughly split between northern Muslims and southern Christians, which has been hit by sporadic outbursts of inter-communal violence.