Ailing Nigerian leader returns home but not to power

2010-02-25 10:54

NIGERIA’S ailing president returned yesterday after a three-month

stay in a Saudi hospital fueling concern about fresh turmoil but his deputy, who

is filling in for him, said all was “on course.”

Hours after President Umaru Yar’Adua’s unannounced arrival in the

capital Abuja, the Nigerian senate voted to limit the time the head of state can

stay away from office without informing parliament.

It set a deadline of 14 days within which the president must

formally notify parliament of any inablity to perform his functions.

Acting president, Goodluck Jonathan, who will remain in charge

while the president, treated for a serious heart condition, continues to

recover, assured Nigerians “that the ship of state is on course”.

“It is at times like this that all patriots must rise to the

occasion, and place the interest of the country above every other

consideration,” said Jonathan in a statement.

A weekly cabinet meeting went ahead briefly following a delay of

several hours after it became clear that Yar’Adua would not be attending.

Nigeria’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia said the 58-year-old Yar’Adua

flew home after a marked improvement in his condition, but it was several hours

before officials in Abuja confirmed his return.

Yar’Adua’s spokesman, Segun Adeniyi, said Jonathan will remain in

charge until the president got back on his feet.

“After being discharged by the team of medical experts overseeing

his treatment . . . Yar’Adua returned to the presidential villa, in Abuja early

this morning,” he said.

“While the president completes his recuperation, vice president

Jonathan will continue to oversee the affairs of state,” he said.

The two leaders had yet to meet more than 12 hours after Yar’Adua’s

return, information minister, Dora Akunyili, told reporters after the cabinet


She said Jonathan had been briefed of Yar’Adua’s return by

presidential aides.

Jonathan “hopes to see the wife of the president this evening . . .

and when he is eventually briefed by our president, he (Jonathan) will call us

again,” she said.

The clandestine nature of the president’s return – in the dead of

night, after a 93 day absence – did little to reassure the United States about

his state of health, with Washington expressing concern his return could spark

“renewed uncertainty” in the major oil exporter.

Recent reports “continue to suggest that president Umaru Yar’Adua’s

health remains fragile and that he may still be unable to fulfill the demands of

his office,” said Washington’s top envoy to Africa, Johnnie Carson.

“We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an

effort by his senior advisors to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed

uncertainty in the democratic process,” Carson said in a statement released by

the US embassy in Nigeria.

“Nigeria is an extraordinarily important country . . . those in

positions of responsibility should put the health of the president and the best

interests of the country and people of Nigeria above personal ambition or


Sources said that apart from a handful of Yar’Adua’s aides, no-one

in the government, including Jonathan, knew he would be returning until late on

Tuesday, just hours before his arrival from Jeddah. The information minister

said she first heard of Yar’Adua’s return on CNN.

Yar’Adua’s return is a “conspiracy of a cabal . . . who want to

foist an ailing president on the country, holding all of us to ransom. We will

now have a divided executive,” said political analyst Bayo Okunade of Ibadan


“It’s not even the way to run a convent or a monastery,” said Chidi

Odinkalu, an Abuja-based political commentator, adding that it was a political

squabble that could snowball into a “major national crisis”.

The president was taken ill last November and flown out to Jeddah

for treatment for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane protecting the


He has not been seen in public since then and has only given one

brief interview.

As Yar’Adua had made no provision for who takes charge during his

stay in Saudi Arabia, his lengthy absence from Africa’s most populous country

caused disquiet both at home and abroad.

Some of the tension was eased when parliament voted on February 9

to hand over power to Jonathan. He moved swiftly to assert his authority,

including effecting a cabinet reshuffle.

Yar’Adua’s loyalists were initially reluctant for a transfer to be

formalised but a split emerged in cabinet ranks as international powers,

including the European Union and the United States, voiced their unease.

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