Jonathan reshuffles Cabinet

February 11, 2010 12:00 am

, ABUJA, Febr 10 – Nigeria\’s acting President Goodluck Jonathan flexed his political muscles on Wednesday by making a cabinet reshuffle within hours of his controversial appointment to stand in for Umaru Yar\’Adua.

He moved the outspoken Justice Minister Michael Aondoakaa, who has rebuffed calls for Yar\’Adua to transfer full powers to Jonathan, giving him an obscure portfolio of minister for special duties.

Aondoakaa\’s job has been taken over by the former labour minister Kayode Adetokunbo while special duties minister Ibrahim Kazaure moves to labour.

"It is a presidential decision and he has the power to move any of us," Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters.

With Africa\’s most populous country still in political turmoil, top ministers appointed by Yar\’Adua threw their weight behind the parliament\’s decision to install Jonathan as acting head-of-state.

The cabinet "commends" the lawmakers "for their action and pledges to support the acting president in his onerous responsibility of steering the ship of the nation."

Yar\’Adua has been stricken with a heart ailment in a Saudi Arabian hospital since November 23 and opposition leaders say Nigeria has been hit by a power vacuum with crucial business left unattended.

Jonathan acknowledged that the circumstances under which he assumed charge of Nigeria were "uncommon". Some critics have said the votes by the two parliamentary chambers bringing him in were illegal.

Amid warnings over possible instability in a country with a history of military takeovers, Jonathan commended the security services for "their loyalty and devotion to duty during this trying period".

"I am deeply humbled and honoured by this great call to duty," he said in comments late Tuesday.

Yar\’Adua, in his third month of absence, should have informed parliament he was going on medical vacation to pave way for his deputy to step in as acting president. But his only comments since his departure were made in a brief interview with the BBC on January 12.

Parliament said it had been left with no choice but to substitute the media interview for a formal notification.

"The doctrine of necessity requires that we do what is necessary when faced with a situation that was not contemplated by the constitution," said David Mark, president of the Senate.

The lower house of parliament backed the move in the interests of "peace, order and good governance".

Parliament\’s decision sent a powerful political message to Yar\’Adua\’s supporters.

Aondoakaa told CNN on Tuesday that parliament\’s decision "can override a court decision". Last month a court ruled that Jonathan could excercise presidential functions but not as an acting president.

"What is important now at this stage is to move the country forward. The main issue is that … there must be ways of resolving our problems constitutionally," Aondoakaa added.

"I feel the system is working fine because nobody has taken up arms."

The lawmakers\’ decision heaped public pressure on the cabinet over its support for Yar\’Adua after a High Court demand last month that it decides whether the president was fit to continue.

Akunyili, the government\’s spokeswoman, broke ranks with cabinet colleagues last week, calling on them to revoke their earlier decision that he could exercise his duties.

Part of the political battle in Nigeria is the delicate regional balancing act in Nigeria: Yar\’Adua is from the predominantly Muslim north and Jonathan from the mainly Christian south.

The presidency traditionally switches between the two sides at every two elections. But in recent weeks the regional power battle has taken a back seat with governors from the 36 states rallying behind Jonathan.

Chairman of the governors\’ forum Bukola Saraki said Tuesday\’s move by parliament "shows that definitely the democracy of this country has matured and shows that we have courageous democrats (in parliament)".

Yar\’Adua\’s long absence had worried the United States and European Union.

International concerns were highlighted Tuesday by a top US envoy who urged, after a meeting with Jonathan, a democratic transition of power.

In "this period of uncertainty we believe that it is very important that if indeed there is a transition of political power in Nigeria let it be done democratically," US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson said.


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