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Nigerian minister urges Yar'Adua to hand over –memo

WORLD
By | February 5th 2010

ABUJA, Feb 4

A Nigerian minister on Thursday called on President Umaru Yar'Adua to hand over to his deputy, saying his prolonged absence was damaging Nigeria's image and threatening its economy, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

Information Minister Dora Akunyili sent a formal request to the cabinet urging it to pass a resolution calling on Yar'Adua to allow his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, to be acting president.

It is the first sign of a split among ministers who have until now given the ailing leader their unanimous backing.

"The power vacuum ... has compounded our poor image at the international level because of our failure to rise to international expectations, commitments and engagements that require the presence of our president," said Akunyili's memo, sent to the cabinet secretariat on Thursday.

"The looming crisis in the system is over boiling. Our hard earned democracy is being threatened by the day," it said.

Akunyili, who could not immediately be reached for comment, presented a similar paper at a weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday but was asked to withdraw it on a technicality because ministers said it had not been properly presented.

"In view of the seriousness of the situation and my concern for our dear country, I am now compelled to present it formally as a memo to Council for consideration," Thursday's memo said.

The more than 40-strong cabinet, or Federal Executive Council, has twice resolved that Yar'Adua remains fit to govern despite calls from the Senate, bar association, former heads of state and elder statesmen for him to hand over.

Other than impeachment by parliament -- a long-winded process which would require a majority vote seen as hard to secure -- only the cabinet can force Yar'Adua to hand over temporarily to Jonathan.

The opposition and other critics say it has so far failed to do so because it is made up of Yar'Adua's hand-picked appointees who fear they may lose their jobs if he goes.

Cabinet is due to meet again next Wednesday and a cabinet source said he was hopeful Akunyili's memo would be debated.

Breaking Ranks

The 58-year-old president has not been seen in public since he left on November 23 to receive treatment for a heart condition in Saudi Arabia. His failure to formally transfer power has led to debate over the legality of government decisions.

Akunyili dismissed assertions by some of her colleagues that state affairs were continuing as normal in Yar'Adua's absence without Jonathan empowered to be acting president.

"Many ministries are without permanent secretaries ... As it is today, the vice president cannot take any document to the National Assembly," the memo said.

"In a very desperate situation like the recent Jos crisis, the vice president deployed troops to Plateau (state) but many have openly said he does not have the right because there cannot be two commanders-in-chief at a time," it said.

Clashes between Muslim and Christian gangs in the central city of Jos killed hundreds last month before Jonathan deployed the military to restore order.

The memo also pointed to a threat by militants in the Niger Delta, the heartland of the country's mainstay oil industry, to resume attacks on energy infrastructure because of delays to an amnesty programme in the president's absence.

Nigerian newspapers said hawks in the cabinet had forced Akunyili's initial memo off the agenda at Wednesday's cabinet meeting but that some ministers had privately congratulated her.

The Next newspaper called the apparent cabinet rift a major break in "the last bastion in defence of an ailing president".

Pressure on Yar'Adua to either return and prove he is fit to govern or hand over to his deputy had already been mounting.

The Senate, former heads of state and ex-ministers, the Nigerian Bar Association and the opposition have all called on Yar'Adua to formally notify parliament of his absence and allow Jonathan to take over until his health is restored.

"There has been persistent agitation by the public for members of the Federal Executive Council to do something. Nigerians expect us to rise to this challenge," the memo said.

-Reuters

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