ABUJA, Nigeria – Nigeria's parliament empowered Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to run Africa's most populous nation Tuesday in place of an ill and absent president
But the move is not contemplated in the constitution, legal experts say, and could cause more friction between the Christian south, which gains the presidency at least temporarily, and Muslim north, which finds itself out of the seat of power.
Jonathan told the nation in a televised address Tuesday night that he had assumed power as acting president and commander in chief of the country of 150 million people. He urged all Nigerians to continue to pray for elected President Umaru Yar'Adua, who left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia on Nov. 23. Yar'Adua's physician has said the 58-year-old, who long has suffered from kidney ailments, is being treated for acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.
"The events of the recent past have put to the test our collective resolve as a democratic nation," Jonathan said. He later added: "We have all shown that our unity as a people, our love for this country, and our hope for its great future cannot be shaken."
Much of the Nigerian government has been at a standstill. Yar'Adua did not write a letter to the vice president alerting him of the medical absence and empowering him to act as president, as called for in the 1999 constitution. Yar'Adua's absence has caused a cease-fire he negotiated with insurgents in the country's oil-rich Niger Delta to unravel and oil contracts have gone unsigned. The political turmoil in a powerful country with a long history of coups and military dictatorships recently prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and European leaders to call on the nation to follow its constitution.
Newspapers began worrying about possible coup scenarios as Yar'Adua's absence grew longer. However, military leaders insist they have no ambitions to take power and will respect the constitution. Jonathan thanked the security services during his Tuesday night address "for their loyalty and devotion to duty during this trying period."
Both the House of Representatives and the Senate on Tuesday passed measures calling on Jonathan to act as president and commander in chief until Yar'Adua returns from Saudi Arabia. There's no indication Yar'Adua will return any time soon, and details about his illness remain unknown to the public.
Despite the lack of a letter from Yar'Adua designating Jonathan in charge, Senate President David Marks said a telephone interview the president gave to the BBC about his poor health could act in place of a formal letter.
"The BBC interview is as good as the letter envisaged by the constitution," Mark said.
However, some legal experts say the constitution offers no remedy when a president declines to send the letter and it does not empower the National Assembly to act as it did.
"I'm not sure they are on strong ground legally," Oluwarotimi O. Akeredolu, president of the Nigerian Bar Association, told The Associated Press. "There's nothing enabling them to do what they have done."
Akeredolu said the bar association hasn't decided whether to challenge the lawmakers' action. The move renders moot several lawsuits against the federal government asking it to declare Jonathan president in Yar'Adua's absence. Public discontent over the 58-year-old Yar'Adua's absence may also be mollified. As weeks stretched into months, local newspapers began publishing small graphics on their front pages noting the number of days the president has been away from Nigeria.
Jonathan served as a governor in oil-rich Bayelsa state before being picked as Yar'Adua's running mate on the 2007 ticket for the People's Democratic Party, the ruling political party in Nigeria. Jonathan, a Christian who is fond of bowler hats, largely avoided the infighting in Yar'Adua's absence and remained silent as the nation's de facto leader. His only major act in Yar'Adua's absence came when he called out the military to restore order in central Nigeria after fighting between Christians and Muslims claimed more than 300 lives.
Parliament's action could cause further tensions between the two faiths. An unwritten power-sharing agreement within the PDP between Nigeria's Christians and Muslims calls for the presidency to alternate between the two faiths. Jonathan, a Christian, would be taking over for Yar'Adua, a Muslim, before his appointed time is up. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former dictator who became the civilian elected leader in 1999 and preceded Yar'Adua, is a Christian who served two terms.
Perhaps with an eye for what waits ahead, Jonathan called for national unity.
"Today affords us time to reconnect with ourselves and overcome any suspicions, hurts and doubts, which have occurred," he said. "In all these, there are no winners and no losers, because by the grace of God we have once again succeeded in moving our country forward."
Gambrell reported from Lagos, Nigeria.