Nigerians protest ill president’s long absence

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ABUJA, Nigeria – More than 1,000 Nigerians protested the long absence of their ill president on Tuesday, challenging the troubled democracy even after hearing his voice for the first time in nearly two months.

President Umaru Yar’Adua left Nigeria on Nov. 23 to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. He has long been troubled by a kidney ailment, and doctors have said he is now suffering from acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.

In a telephone interview with the BBC early Tuesday, Yar’Adua said his health was improving.

“I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress that will allow me to get back home,” Yar’Adua said, pausing occasionally to cough. “I wish to thank all Nigerians for their prayers for my good health and their prayers for the nation.”

He added: “As soon as my doctors discharge me, I will return to Nigeria to assume my duties.”

While Nigerian law allows for a smooth transition of power from Yar’Adua to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, the 58-year-old president left without following any of those procedures.

Nigerian newspapers have taken to printing small calendar tags on their front pages, marking the number of days Yar’Adua has remained outside of the nation. They also have questioned his ability to lead when — or if — he returns.

“Everything has ground to a halt,” Nigerian and Nobel Prize laureate Wole Soyinka told those gathered at the demonstration in the capital, Abuja. “This has been kept deliberately so because there is a small cabal that profits by not having him in control.”

The Nigerian government has largely ignored the public calls for Yar’Adua to address the nation, saying that he has remained in contact with key ministers and even signed a supplemental budget brought to him in Saudi Arabia.

The mention of Yar’Adua’s first public comments in weeks brought boos from the crowd, many of whom are already suspicious of the way the country has handled Yar’Adua’s absence.

“We don’t want an offshore president. In short, he is missing,” said Gboyega Atoyebi, a 28-year-old lawyer from Abuja who attended the rally. “Whether he is coming back or not, we are not deceived by his purported speech on the BBC. We want to see him live. Let him address the Nigerian nation.”

Pressure has been building in this West African country of 150 million people as Yar’Adua’s absence has dragged from days into weeks.

Nigeria cast aside a string of military dictators for democracy in 1999, but corruption still permeates government in the oil-rich nation.

Yar’Adua, who himself came to power through a 2007 election marred by fraud and intimidation, announced his own private finances upon assuming office and promised to change the country’s voting laws. But many of those promises remain unfulfilled as the nation faces a 2011 presidential election.

On Tuesday, protesters walked past Nigeria’s federal high court during their march, the site where government lawyers will try to quash three separate lawsuits Thursday that are challenging Yar’Adua’s absence. The protesters arrived in front of the national assembly for a rally as lawmakers inside continued their deliberations on what steps they should take in Yar’Adua’s absence.

The Nigerian House of Representatives voted in a closed-door session to send a delegation of lawmakers to Saudi Arabia to “convey a goodwill message” and discuss national issues with Yar’Adua. They set no timetable for the trip, but promised to offer the chamber a full report on what they found. The Senate failed to take any significant action on the matter.

By the end of the rally, House Speaker Dimeji Bankole came out of the national assembly with a phalanx of police officers to address the crowd. But as he spoke, the crowd drowned out his words with boos and organizers played music through loudspeakers in the back of a pickup truck. Bankole quickly stormed off.

“Democracy in action! Did you see that guy?” one exuberant man shouted as Bankole left. “It can’t get any better!”

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