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As Nigerian leader is buried, nation swears in new president

The body of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua was carried from Katsina Stadium to the cemetery yesterday. Thousands of mourners thronged the city of Katsina for the funeral. The body of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua was carried from Katsina Stadium to the cemetery yesterday. Thousands of mourners thronged the city of Katsina for the funeral. (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)
By Jon Gambrell
Associated Press / May 7, 2010

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LAGOS, Nigeria — Acting leader Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in yesterday as president of Africa’s most populous nation, as officials buried the flag-draped corpse of his Muslim predecessor before sundown.

The power shift to Jonathan, a Christian, peacefully ended a profound leadership crisis triggered last November when President Umaru Yar’Adua, who died Wednesday at the age of 58, left the country for medical treatment without transferring authority to his deputy.

Jonathan had already assumed presidential powers Feb. 9 after an extraordinary National Assembly vote was called to resolve the leadership vacuum left when Yar’Adua was hospitalized in Saudi Arabia for an inflamed heart.

Nigeria has been plagued by military coups for much of its 50 years of independence, and Jonathan will have to keep a lid on the volatile nation’s sectarian divisions as well as violence and kidnappings in the oil industry as it edges toward a tense presidential election next year.

Jonathan will serve as president through next year’s vote, likely to be held by April 2011. He also will be able to select a vice president, whose appointment will be subject to Senate approval.

Soldiers and police officers accompanied Yar’Adua corpse on a flight yesterday to his home state of Katsina in the country’s Muslim north. There, mourners carried his body on their shoulders into a local soccer stadium for a final prayer service. A local imam led the prayers, calling out “God is great’’ in Arabic and raising his hands to the sky as an anxious and curious crowd jostled around the coffin before it was buried at a cemetery near his home.

In a brief national address, Jonathan promised his administration would focus on good governance during its short tenure, focusing especially on the electoral system and the fight against corruption.

But “one of the true tests will be that all votes count and are counted in our upcoming presidential election,’’ Jonathan said.

An unwritten power-sharing agreement within Nigeria’s ruling People’s Democratic Party calls for the presidency to alternate between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims. However, Yar’Adua was still in his first four-year term and leaders in the north had expected him to serve two terms.

If Jonathan runs for the office, his candidacy could shatter the ruling party, which has the political muscle necessary to manipulate Nigeria’s unruly and corrupt electoral system. Analysts also warn a Jonathan presidential bid could spark fresh violence in a nation of 150 million people split between Christians and Muslims, especially if northern leaders believe they will lose power in the process.

It “creates the room for those who believe the presidency had been assigned to the north by the PDP party,’’ said Charles Dokubo, an analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs.

Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for STRATFOR, a private security think tank based in Austin, Texas, said “Jonathan must be interested in contesting for the presidency, but he still has not revealed his hand and he’s still pretty hesitant about signaling what his intentions are.’’

“Jonathan will certainly keep his hat in the ring and that will ensure he remains an influence within Nigeria’s political system,’’ he said.

Schroeder said Nigeria’s political leaders knew they needed to quickly swear Jonathan in as president to show the world there was no power vacuum.

“The US wants political stability in Nigeria so that’s there’s stability in the oil sector,’’ Schroeder said.

Nigeria was the number four oil exporter to the United States in February, sending about 896,000 barrels of crude a day, outstripping even Saudi Arabia.

Jonathan said peace in the Niger Delta, home to the country’s oil industry, remains a priority. Attacks by militants there last year crippled oil production. Yar’Adua had tried to peacefully end the insurgency but those efforts frayed because of his increasing illness.

Jonathan said Yar’Adua left a “profound legacy’’ for him to follow.

“He was not just a boss, but a good friend and a brother,’’ Jonathan said.

Analysts said Nigeria’s future will depend largely on what happens in the near future.

“It now revolves around what the informal power-sharing between the north and the south, the Christians and the Muslims, is actually going to work out,’’ said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria who now is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.