Thousands of Nigerians marched to the gates of the presidential villa yesterday to demand an end to the presidency of ailing leader Umaru Yar’Adua so acting President Goodluck Jonathan can take over as head of state.
The 58-year-old leader has not been seen in public since he left for treatment in Saudi Arabia at the end of November. He was flown back to Nigeria two weeks ago but remains too frail to govern. Presidency sources say he is still in intensive care.
His secretive return in the middle of the night raised fears that his inner circle of aides, led by his wife Turai, would fight to maintain their influence over Africa’s most populous nation and seek to undermine Jonathan.
A power struggle at the top of the OPEC member with a population of 140 million could paralyse the government, threaten an amnesty programme in the oil-producing Niger Delta and jeopardise reforms in sectors from banking to oil and gas.
At the same time, Nigeria was trying to deal with violence in “Middle Belt”, an ethnic fault line between its Muslim north and Christian south, and the threat of renewed militant attacks on its oil and gas industry.
“We want the invisible president to be revoked. We are tired of a president we can’t see, who can’t govern,” Babatunde Ogala, a Lagos politician and one of the protest organisers, said.
A few thousand people, many wearing T-shirts with “Save Nigeria Group” on the front and “Enough is Enough” on the back, marched to within a few hundred metres of the presidential villa watched by unarmed police officers lining the streets.
“If we can’t see him we want someone else who is allowed to govern. Why is a cabal controlling our country?” Ogala said.
The political crisis and unrest between Christians and Muslims has put Nigeria back in the international spotlight. Pope Benedict, the United States and the United Nations have all urged the authorities to work for a peaceful resolution.
Sporadic shooting broke out overnight in the central city of Jos and at least one person was killed by soldiers enforcing a curfew days after attacks on three Christian settlements in which hundreds were feared to have been killed.
A militant splinter group in the southern Niger Delta, which has claimed responsibility for two attacks this month hundreds of kilometres away in the heartland of the oil industry, blamed the violence in Jos on northerners backed by the military.
“This is a litmus test for the Jonathan administration,” the group, known as the Joint Revolutionary Council, said in a statement.
Jonathan sent Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, who as secretary to the government liaises between the presidency and ministries, to meet the Abuja protesters and hear their demands.
Tunde Bakare, a popular pastor and one of the leaders of the Save Nigeria Group, said the main goal was an end to Yar’Adua’s “invisible presidency” through an official declaration that he was incapable of holding office.
Under the constitution, Jonathan would be sworn in as head of state and complete the unexpired presidential term, which runs until May next year, with a new vice-president should Yar’Adua be declared too ill to govern, or resign or die.
The group also wants the dissolution of the cabinet and the implementation of electoral reforms, which could bring a presidential election forward to as early as November.
“The acting president has assured that your demands will be looked into immediately,” Yayale Ahmed said, addressing the crowd from the back of a truck.
Such political demonstrations are relatively rare in Nigeria, where most people live on $2 a day or less and see politics as a game played by multi-millionaires whose outcome has little effect on their daily lives.
A group of less than 100 pro-Yar’Adua supporters converged on the gates of the presidency, carrying placards bearing the ailing leader’s image.
Pic: Ailing Nigerian president-Umaru Yar’Adua