Nigeria’s shaky balance of power takes a hit as new president is sworn in

Nigeria buried its president on Thursday and swore in his successor, Goodluck Jonathan, amid fears of a debilitating power struggle in the ruling party.

Politicians hailed the smooth power transfer, but the death of President Umaru Yar’Adua on Wednesday night after a five-month illness could lead to infighting between northerners and southerners in the ruling People’s Democratic Party should Jonathan, a southerner, decide to run for the presidency in elections due next year.

Jonathan’s candidacy would shatter an unwritten deal in the PDP that rotates the presidency for eight years to a leader from the mainly Christian south and eight years to someone from the mainly Muslim north. The rotation is seen as vital to Nigeria’s political stability.

The arrangement, known as the “zoning” policy, was recently affirmed by the party and means an Islamic candidate should run as the PDP candidate because Yar’Adua, a Muslim, served less than four years.

But differences over the zoning policy between top ruling party figures underscore the divisions and unfolding battle for power.

Jonathan, who as vice president has been serving as the country’s interim leader in recent months, has made no announcement on whether he intends to run. But if he uses his incumbency to muscle his way into the PDP’s nomination as presidential candidate, he could lose votes in the more populous north, according to both ruling party and opposition politicians.

After he was sworn in Thursday, Jonathan said he took office in sad and unusual circumstances and described Yar’Adua as a man of integrity and humility. He declared a week of mourning.

“I have lost not just a boss but a good friend and brother,” said Jonathan. “He will always occupy a place of pride in the political history of our dear nation.”

Thousands attended Yar’Adua’s funeral late Thursday in his northern home city of Katsina, where he had been governor from 1999 to 2007. His body, wrapped in the green and white Nigerian flag, was flown to Katsina by air force jet for prayers at a city stadium before interment at a nearby cemetery.

Yar’Adua’s frequent bouts of illness undermined his three-year presidency and prevented him from delivering on pledges to reform Nigeria, tackle corruption and implement the rule of law.

He had suffered a kidney ailment since the 1990s. In November, he flew to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment for pericarditis, inflammation of the sac around the heart. He failed to formally hand over executive powers to Jonathan and was never seen in public again.

The legislature’s vote to hand executive powers to Jonathan in February was condemned by some lawyers as unconstitutional — and Yar’Adua’s return soon after deepened the political crisis.

Presidential aides were accused of trying to cling to power as Yar’Adua lay on his deathbed. Jonathan was repeatedly prevented from meeting the president. Yar’Adua never addressed the public, and no clarity on his health was offered before Wednesday’s announcement of his death.

PDP Chairman Vincent Ogbulafor said recently the presidency would remain with the north after the 2011 elections, in accordance with the zoning policy.

Nigeria, the world’s eight-largest oil exporter and Africa’s most populous nation with 150 million people, is almost equally divided between Muslims in the north and Christians in the south.

Since independence in 1960, the volatile and ethnically diverse nation has suffered chronic bouts of poor governance, whether by military or civilian rulers. Billions of dollars in oil wealth have been stolen or squandered by the corrupt political elite.

Yar’Adua was widely seen as a man of integrity and honesty. He came to office promising reform, but he lacked the political strength to counter widespread corruption.

In recent years, the country has been racked by violence in the volatile oil-producing Niger Delta, with attacks on oil facilities and kidnappings by rebel groups demanding independence for the region. Yar’Adua, determined to increase flagging oil exports, succeeded in establishing a shaky peace in the region by introducing an amnesty for rebels, many of whom surrendered their weapons.

But there were other flare-ups, with renewed ethnic and religious violence in central Nigeria’s Plateau state that left hundreds of people dead in the last few months.

And in July, security forces violently crushed a rebellion in the north by an extremist Islamic group that calls itself Nigeria’s Taliban. The group’s leader and numerous others were apparently executed in captivity by security forces, undermining Yar’Adua’s mantra of respect for the rule of law. On March 19, police were charged in the killings.

Since taking power as acting president, Jonathan has promised free and fair elections in 2011 and appointed a Cabinet seen as reflecting his desire for reform.

But the biggest obstacle to change in Nigeria, critics say, is the ruling party, with its history of patronage and corruption.

Special correspondent Segun Adeyemi in Lagos, Nigeria, contributed to this report.