The Nigerian parliament today voted to transfer power to vice-president Goodluck Jonathan in the prolonged absence of the president, Umaru Yar'Adua, who has been receiving hospital treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Both the house of representatives and senate passed motions enabling Jonathan to act as president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces until Yar'Adua, who left Nigeria in November last year, is fit enough to resume his duties.
"The vice-president … shall henceforth discharge the functions of the office of the president, commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the federation, as acting president," the senate motion said.
The motions would allow Yar'Adua to reassume the presidency if he returns healthy enough to lead the country of 150 million people. However, many think he is too ill to serve again, casting doubt on the leadership of the ruling party in the run-up to next year's presidential election.
Pressure to transfer power to the vice-president has grown in recent weeks. Nigeria's influential state governors backed plans last week for Jonathan to be appointed acting president to fill the political vacuum and urged parliament to act. Jonathan could be immediately sworn in as president, if the lower house passes a similar measure.
Yar'Adua, who has suffered from kidney ailments, left the country several times for what his advisers said were medical checkups before going to Saudi Arabia in November. He was admitted to a hospital the next day and has remained there, leaving Nigerian in political limbo.
Amid rumours about the president's health – some reports said he was dead – his doctor released a statement saying he had acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.
While the government says Jonathan has been acting in Yar'Adua's place, protesters have taken to the street warning the country will remain rudderless until the situation is clarified. In Yar'Adua's absence more than 300 people have died and thousands displaced in religious violence between Christians and Muslims, a major kidnapping and a pipeline attack have occurred in the oil-rich Niger delta and a young Nigerian attempted to bring down an airliner over Detroit, prompting the introduction of new security regulations for those travelling from Nigeria.
Giving power to the vice-president creates its own problems as it would disrupt an unwritten power-sharing agreement between Nigeria's Christian south and Muslim north. Jonathan, a Christian, would be taking over from Yar'Adua, a Muslim, before the president's appointed time was up.
Until he took over as Nigeria's president in May 2007, Yar'Adua, 58, was governor of his northern Katsina home state for eight years.
He has given one interview since being out of the country. In January, he told the BBC he hoped to recover and return to power. The senate president, David Mark, said that telephone interview served as the notification needed to allow Jonathan to take power. "The BBC interview is as good as the letter envisioned by the constitution," Mark said.
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