Ailing Nigerian president returns home, but not to power

Nigeria’s ailing president returned on Wednesday 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 unannounced arrival in the capital Abuja, the Nigerian Senate voted to limit the time the head of state can away from office without informing Parliament.

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

Goodluck Jonathan remains in charge
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 spokesperson Segun Adeniyi said Jonathan will remain in charge until the president get back on his feet.

“After being discharged by the team of medical experts overseeing his treatment … Yar’Adua returned to the presidential villa, 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 meeting.

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.

Renewed uncertainty
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, 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 gain.”

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 University.

“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 heart.

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 US, voiced their unease. — AFP

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Ola Awoniyi
Ola Awoniyi
Journalist at AFP.

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