ABUJA – A Nigerian court ruled on Friday that President Umaru Yar’Adua was not breaching the constitution by failing to hand over to his deputy during a prolonged absence, but offered little clarity on who was in charge.
The federal high court in Abuja ruled Yar’Adua was not obliged to transfer power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan while he receives medical treatment abroad, but said Jonathan could not be acting president if he failed to do so.
Yar’Adua has been in a Saudi Arabian hospital for more than two months and the resulting wrangling over who is running the country risks bringing government business to a grinding halt.
“There is no mandatory requirement for the president to make a transmission to the leadership of the National Assembly before proceeding on vacation or on treatment outside Nigeria,” Justice Dan Abutu said in his ruling.
But he also ruled that Yar’Adua’s failure to submit a written declaration informing parliament of his absence meant Jonathan could not assume full powers as acting president.
“That condition not having been fulfilled, the vice president cannot validly discharge the function of the president under the constitution as acting president,” Abutu said.
Pressure on Yar’Adua to either return and prove he is fit to govern or hand over to his deputy has 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.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and European Union High Representative Catherine Ashton in a joint statement on Thursday urged Nigeria to abide by the constitution, saying the nation’s stability has ramifications well beyond its borders.
NO END IN SIGHT
But the current impasse could go on for months, with the powerful cabal around Yar’Adua insisting he remains fit to govern and legal challenges coming and going with little effect.
Some of Nigeria’s most powerful figures are benefiting from the status quo.
The cabinet of Yar’Adua appointees may lose their jobs if he goes, while powerful ex-state governors have seen graft cases against them stall under Yar’Adua’s administration and fear such apparent immunity may evaporate with a change of guard.
The constitution says whenever the president writes to parliament to say he is going on vacation or otherwise unable to perform his duties, the vice president takes over temporarily.
The legal debate centres largely around whether this written declaration is optional or mandatory.
But a flurry of court rulings, cabinet resolutions and statements from parliament have done little to clarify matters.
Abutu ruled two weeks ago that Jonathan could perform executive duties but not be acting president, a distinction which has done little other than spark more confusion.
Neither the courts nor the Senate have the authority to force Yar’Adua to hand over power, although parliament could in theory move to impeach him for misconduct.
Ultimately only the cabinet, which consists of Yar’Adua loyalists, has the power to unseat him but it has twice passed resolutions saying it believes he remains fit to govern.