Goodluck Jonathan’s new role splits Nigeria’s ruling party

Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa, and Lagos, Nigeria

Good luck, Jonathan.

Nigerian lawmakers seeking to end months of drift transferred the powers of ailing President Umaru Yar’Adua to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, on Tuesday. But critics say the move is unconstitutional and threatens to upset a delicate balance between Christian southerners and Muslim northerners.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has a long history of political instability, repression and military coups. Yar’Adua’s election and inauguration in 2007 marked the country’s first peaceful transition of power since it gained independence half a century ago.

But Yar’Adua,58,has been in a hospital in Saudi Arabia since Nov. 23, with inflammation of the lining around his heart. He also has a history of kidney problems. Although little is known for sure about his condition, local news reports suggest that he is on life support, may have suffered brain damage and is unlikely to return to power.

The Nigerian Constitution requires that a president inform the Senate and House of Representatives of a medical leave before they can appoint an acting leader. Yar’Adua did not do so, creating a vacuum.

In the president’s absence, Jonathan has not been able to sign documents or make major decisions. Key appointments have been allowed to slide. The West African regional leadership body, ECOWAS, has twice postponed its annual summit because of Yar’Adua’s illness.

Hundreds were killed last month in religious strife between Muslims and Christians. An important peace deal with rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta has frayed dangerously.

And Nigeria was added by the U.S. to a list of countries of concern after one of its citizens, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, allegedly tried to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner in December. The U.S. decision damaged Nigeria’s prestige, and newspapers suggested that a functioning president could have headed that off.

Thousands have marched in the streets protesting the power vacuum.

But getting around it is not proving to be easy.

Jonathan, 52, is a former university teacher who studied zoology. He became governor of oil-rich Bayelsa state when his predecessor was indicted.

The push to make him acting president has left the ruling People’s Democratic Party deeply divided. The party has an unwritten deal to alternate the presidency between a Muslim northerner, such as Yar’Adua, and a Christian from the south, like his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, who ruled for eight years. Amid fear that Yar’Adua won’t return to office, his northern supporters see Jonathan’s rise as breaching the deal.

Jonathan made his first major move Wednesday, reassigning Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa, one of the Cabinet ministers who strongly opposed transferring presidential powers.

The spokesman for the main opposition Action Congress Party, Lai Mohammed, said parliamentary action “has taken Nigeria closer to the abyss, instead of bringing it back from the brink.”

Rotimi Akeredolu, president of the Nigerian Bar Assn., said the lawmakers should have asked Yar’Adua to send a letter regarding his medical leave or impeached him.

“It is legally a futile exercise,” he said. “The provision of the constitution has not been complied with.”

Many Nigerians were relieved by the action. Paul Ifeobikwu, an accounts officer in Lagos, said Wednesday that even though not constitutional, the decision was good for the country.

But Stephen Ajayi, 45, a clerk in Lagos, predicted difficulties. “The implication is that whatever action is taken by Jonathan as acting president is prone to legal challenges,” he said.

Adeyemi is a special correspondent.