Nigeria’s ailing president clings to power

Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s stricken president, faced mounting pressure from the streets, the courts and his country’s parliament on Tuesday as critics demanded that he hand over power.

The 58-year-old leader, who has spent the past 50 days in a hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, tried to quell rumours about his incapacitation or even death by speaking to the BBC by telephone.

But Mr Yar’Adua’s failure to delegate temporary authority to his vice-president and an outbreak of political plotting has left Africa’s most populous nation, the fifth-largest oil supplier to the US, wracked with uncertainty.

Sounding frail and coughing intermittently, Mr Yar’Adua told the BBC: “At the moment I am undergoing treatment, and I’m getting better from the treatment. I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home.”

But he could not say when that might be.

Mr Yar’Adua has suffered from a chronic kidney condition since before his election nearly three years ago. On November 23 he was flown to a Jeddah hospital after developing what his doctor said was acute pericarditis, an inflammation around the heart.

Yet in a country where politics amounts to a constant power struggle within the wealthy elite, he has declined to relinquish authority even temporarily to Goodluck Jonathan, the vice-president.

Many Nigerians are furious that their leader was unable to fight their corner when the country came under US pressure after the alleged attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, their young compatriot, to blow up a passenger jet on Christmas Day.

While Mr Yar’Adua’s broadcast will scotch rumours of his death, the manoeuvring among the powerbrokers of the ruling People’s Democratic party indicates an assumption that, at the very least, he will not contest next year’s election.

“He’s getting better,” said a family friend. “Whether he will be strong enough to rule, I’m not sure.”

The sense of urgency was underlined when four foreign contractors working forRoyal Dutch Shell in the oil-producing Niger delta region – reportedly three Britons and a Colombian – were on Tuesday seized by armed kidnappers.

Coming just days after the attack on a Chevron pipeline on Friday, the latest incident has raised fears that an amnesty Mr Yar’Adua offered to militants in the delta is unravelling in his absence.

Some 3,600km from the president’s hospital bed, thousands of demonstrators marched on the national assembly in Abuja, the capital. “I don’t need to do this,” said Guy Okechuku, a 65-year-old protester wearing a T-shirt reading ‘Enough Is Enough’. “But I’m angry. I’m here to support the people who are fighting against evil, fighting against lies.”

As the marchers denounced their “offshore president”, the lower house of the national assembly resolved to send seven of its members to Saudi Arabia to ascertain the president’s state of health. The delegation could depart as early as next week.

One MP added, however, that the house had decided that only the cabinet could demand that the president hand over temporary control to the vice-president. So far, the cabinet has no intention of doing so.

A court will on Thursday hear petitions from leading lawyers and opposition activists who believe that the constitution obliges a president, when incapacitated, to hand over powers until he is fit to return.

The organisers of the street protest, among them leading activists who campaigned against the country’s military dictatorships that ended only a decade ago, said they hoped for rolling demonstrations.

But they acknowledged that decades of corruption and repression have weakened the contract between rulers and ruled to such an extent that most of Nigeria’s 150m people would be reluctant to sacrifice a day’s pay to lobby a political class they regard with disdain.

Among the chants of “Umaru, where are you?”, Olisa Agbakoba, a former head of the Nigerian Bar Association and a veteran democracy activist jailed by Sani Abacha, the country’s last dictator, said: “We are in a cul-de-sac. It’s obvious something’s got to give. But how it will play out, I cannot tell.