Ailing Nigerian leader`s return sparks `uncertainty`

Last Updated: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 19:09

Abuja: Nigeria`s ailing president sneaked home Wednesday after a three-month stay in a Saudi hospital, immediately sparking international concern over renewed instability in the major oil exporter.

The country`s ambassador to Riyadh said that President Umaru Yar`Adua flew back home after a marked improvement in his condition. The 58-year-old had been treated for a heart condition at a hospital in Jeddah, triggering an unprecedented power vacuum in Africa`s most populous country.

"Yes, he has returned to Nigeria. His condition has improved tremendously," Nigeria`s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Aminchi, said.

Officials in Nigeria have made no public comment about Yar`Adua`s return, which took place in the dead of night after a 93-day absence.

The clandestine nature of the president`s return failed to reassure the United States about his state of health, Washington expressing concern his return could spark "renewed uncertainty" in the major oil exporter.

Recent reports "continue to suggest that President Umaru Yar?Adua?s health remains fragile and that he may still be unable to fulfill the demands of his office," said Washington`s top envoy to Africa, Johnnie Carson.

"We hope that President Yar?Adua?s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisors to upset Nigeria?s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process," Carson said in a statement released by the US embassy in Lagos.

"Nigeria needs a strong, healthy and effective leader to ensure the stability of the country and to manage Nigeria`s many political, economic and security challenges."

"Nigeria is an extraordinarily important country...and all of those in positions of responsibility should put the health of the president and the best interests of the country and people of Nigeria above personal ambition or gain."

An AFP correspondent saw two planes land in succession -- one of them believed to be an air ambulance -- amid heavy security at the presidential wing of the international airport in Abuja.

A white ambulance and several sports utility vehicles with black tinted windows drove to meet the plane.

Soldiers were deployed at strategic points along the airport road and a bus parked nearby bore the "brigades of guard" inscription denoting the elite military unit that guards the head of state.

A convoy of 23 vehicles -- including the ambulance -- accompanied by a full presidential escort left the airport and was seen driving towards the direction of the Yar`Adua`s official residence, Aso Rock Villa.

A member of Yar`Adua`s entourage confirmed that the president was back at his presidential villa in the capital Abuja.

"The president arrived early this morning but I have not yet had access to him," the senior official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

The president was taken ill last November and flown out to Jeddah`s King Faisal clinic for treatment for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane covering and protecting the heart.

He has not been seen in public since then and has only given one brief interview.

As Yar`Adua had made no provision for who should take charge during his stay in Saudi Arabia, his lengthy absence from the helm of a major oil exporter caused major disquiet both at home and abroad.

Some of the tension was eased when parliament voted on February 9 to hand over power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

He moved swiftly to assert his authority, including conducting a cabinet reshuffle.

Yar`Adua`s loyalists were initially reluctant for a transfer to be formalised but a split emerged in cabinet ranks as international powers, including the European Union and United States, voiced their unease.

Jonathan`s elevation won widespread international support, including from the African Union which warned the army to support the handover.

Nigeria has a long history of coups and military leadership, and only returned to civilian rule a little over a decade ago.

It was not immediately clear when Yar`Adua would take the helm again. A weekly cabinet meeting which was likely to be dominated by discussion of his sudden return was postponed, officials in Abuja said.

The Senate was due to vote later in the day on a proposed constitutional amendment to restrict the period a president can spend away from office and make it mandatory for him inform parliament each time he leaves the country.

It will also empower parliament to automatically install a vice president as acting president if the head of state is either absent from the country on vacation or for health reasons, or else because of "temporary incapacity".

Bureau Report



First Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 - 19:09

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