Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua will write to the Senate soon in response to calls for him to hand over to his deputy after an absence of more than two months, a presidential aide said on Thursday.
The 58-year-old leader has not been seen in public since he left on November 23 for Saudi Arabia to be treated for a heart condition. His failure to transfer power has brought Africa’s most populous nation to the brink of a constitutional crisis.
The Senate said last week Yar’Adua should formally notify parliament of his absence, a step which would mean Vice President Goodluck Jonathan could take over as acting president.
Former heads of state and lawmakers, the Nigerian Bar Association and the opposition have all made similar calls, some of them through the courts.
“The resolutions of the Senate and the various court rulings have been transmitted to the president. He is a man who respects the rule of law,” presidential adviser on national assembly matters, Abba Aji, told reporters in Abuja.
“He will transmit a letter to the Senate after weighing both the Senate resolutions and the court rulings wisely. He will then do what is in his view the best for the nation,” he said following a meeting with the vice president.
Should Yar’Adua inform the Senate that he is temporarily unable to hold office, Jonathan would take over as acting president until such time as he writes again to the contrary.
Aji declined to say when the letter would be sent but promised there would be “no time lag”. He said only Yar’Adua’s doctors would decide when the president could return to Nigeria.
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.
Until now Nigeria’s more than 40 ministers have given him their unanimous backing, twice resolving he is fit to govern.
But Information Minister Dora Akunyili broke ranks on Thursday, saying Yar’Adua’s prolonged absence was damaging Nigeria’s image and threatening its economy, according to a memo calling for a cabinet resolution urging him to hand over.
“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, seen by Reuters and 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 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.
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.
The cabinet is due to meet again next Wednesday and a cabinet source said he was hopeful Akunyili’s new memo would be debated.