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Nigeria deputy 'has power' in Yar'Adua absence

Goodluck  Jonathan, file image
Goodluck Jonathan is not the "acting president" but can act as president

Nigerian Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan can perform all presidential duties while the country's ailing leader is away, a judge has ruled.

But he would need a formal transfer of power to become official head of state, according to the Federal Court ruling.

It is the first of four cases aiming to clarify who rules while President Umaru Yar'Adua is away. He has been in a Saudi Arabia hospital since November.

Ministers and the lawyer who brought the case said they were satisfied.

But some critics want to see Mr Jonathan become official head of state.

Correspondents say the issue is so sensitive because of the ruling party's system of alternating power between north and south.

While Mr Yar'Adua is a northerner, Mr Jonathan hails from the south.

Northern powerbrokers may be reluctant to see a southerner take over officially before the next scheduled presidential election in 2011.

'No power vacuum'

Justice Daniel Abutu said Mr Jonathan would only be legally regarded as "acting president" if he had received written instructions to do so.

YAR'ADUA ILLNESS TIMELINE
Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua -  file photo 29 July 2009
23 November 2009: Goes to hospital in Saudi Arabia
26 November 2009: Presidential doctors say he has pericarditis - inflammation of the heart lining
23 December 2009: First court case filed called him to step down
30 December 2009: Chief justice sworn in. Lawyers say this is illegal in president's absence
5 January 2010: Two more court cases filed and a human rights group wants president declared "missing"
12 January 2010: President gives first interview since going to Saudi Arabia

Christopher Onwuekwe, the lawyer who brought the suit against the government, said he felt the judge had upheld his case.

He said he went to court only to confirm that the vice-president had the power to carry out the functions of the president.

Justice Minister Michael Aondoakka welcomed the ruling, saying it showed there was no power vacuum and would allow ministers to get on with the business of governing.

He said there was now no justification for the other three cases - due before court on Thursday - to go ahead.

In one of the cases, rights lawyer and activist Femi Falana wants all decisions taken by the cabinet during the president's absence to be annulled.

In another, the Nigerian Bar Association is demanding that he hand over power formally to Mr Jonathan.

And a rights group wants Mr Yar'Adua declared "missing".

In his first public remarks since falling ill, Mr Yar'Adua told the BBC on Tuesday he was in constant contact with his deputy.

He said he was recovering and hoped to be able to return to Nigeria to resume his duties.

Doctors say the president is suffering from acute pericarditis - inflammation of the lining of the heart.

He also has a long-standing kidney complaint.



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