Nigeria: Rule of law versus tribal politics in Yar’Adua’s absence

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The Nigerian constitutional rule of law has been respected, against fears of tribal politics, as Judge appoints Nigeria’s vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, to be in charge of the country, in the absence of the allegedly recuperating president, Umaru Yar’Adua.

Nigerians were fearful that the powerful northern tribe would defy the rulings of the country’s constitution in order to avoid a southerner from assuming the position of president in the case of the President’s demise. Doctors say President Yar’Adua is suffering from acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart, in a backdrop of a long-standing kidney complaint.

However, those fears of tribal politics have been laid to rest, as the rule of law has, seemingly, prevailed. According to Justice Daniel Abutu’s ruling, on behalf of the Federal Court, Goodluck Jonathan is not the “acting president” but can act as president. He would need a formal transfer of power to become official head of state.

This progress has been welcomed by many Nigerians including international observers.

Despite the democratic progress, political analysts have said the issue is sensitive because of the ruling party’s system of alternating power between north and south. While some democrats want to see Mr. Jonathan become official head of state, northern power-brokers may be uneasy at the notion of a southerner taking over officially before the next scheduled presidential election in 2011,” he was quoted as saying.

Speaking about the ruling to local reporters, a prominent Nigerian politician, Chief Nduka Eya expressed worry over the situation in the country: “We claim to be following the footsteps of the United States where we inherited this constitution and democracy, but unfortunately, we do terrible things. When President Bill Clinton went for minor surgery, the nation was informed of everything that transpired. Though, nobody is happy, that Yar’Adua is ill, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know his state of health. Why do we have the running mate in an election…what’s the idea of having a vice (President)… so there will be no vacuum in the absence of the President.

“Conferring the status of the Acting President on Jonathan will not take anything away from Yar’Adua; unfortunately, there are hawks in the polity who are toying with the fate of Nigerians. We were further insulted when a frail voice told us on BBC that he would soon be back without addressing the issue of the Acting President. What Yar’Adua has succeeded in doing is that the rest of the 140 million Nigerians should wait until he comes back before anything happens. We should wait indefinitely until his doctors’ discharge him. What a shame,” he added

Nonetheless, Christopher Onwuekwe, the lawyer who brought the suit against the government, and government ministers have said they were satisfied. This is the first of four cases to clarify who rules while President Umaru Yar’Adua is away in a Saudi Arabia hospital.

In the other three cases brought against the Nigerian government, rights lawyer and activist Femi Falana wants all decisions taken by the cabinet during the president’s absence to be annulled. The Nigerian Bar Association is demanding that he hand over power formally to Mr Jonathan. And a rights group wants Mr. Yar’Adua declared “missing”.

However, Justice Minister Michael Aondoakka, while welcoming the ruling of the Federal Court Judge, added that there was now no justification for the other three cases, due before court on Thursday, Jan. 14.

The Nigerian president on January 12, gave his first interview since going to Saudi Arabia. BBC News quoted him as saying he was in constant contact with his deputy, and was recovering and hoped to be able to return to Nigeria to resume his duties as soon as possible.

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