, ABUJA, Jan 14 – A Nigerian court deferred judgement Thursday in a case brought by opposition lawyers to force President Umaru Yar\’Adua to install his deputy as acting president until the ailing leader is well enough to return from hospital in Saudi Arabia..
The Federal High Court court ruled on Wednesday that Vice President Goodluck Jonathan could carry out the president\’s functions in his absence, but could not become acting president.
Lawyers are persisting with three separate legal challenges in the same court to force the 58-year-old Yar\’Adua to swear in Jonathan as acting president with full powers without delay.
They say Yar\’Adua is incapacitated and his continuing absence from the helm is causing a dangerous power vacuum which is threatening democracy in Africa\’s second-largest oil exporter a decade after the end of military rule.
The government is fighting the case, insisting that Yar\’Adua is in full possession of his faculties, saying the fact that he signed emergency budget legislation while in hospital was proof of his lucidity.
However, the opposition has alleged a government cover-up, suggesting that his signature on the supplementary budget was forged, and the lower house of parliament has voted to send a delegation of MPs to Saudi Arabia to check the veracity of the health claims.
The government has remained silent on the president\’s state of health since he was hospitalised in Jeddah for a heart condition on November 23. He broke a seven-week silence on Tuesday, telling the BBC in an interview from his sick-bed that the was "getting better".
Ruling People\’s Democratic party chairman Vincent Ogbulafor described the attempts to force Yar\’Adua aside as "unnecessary and shameful" and said they were aimed at destabilising the country.
Thursday\’s court hearing in Abuja was adjourned after quickly becoming bogged down in legal argument. The earliest ruling is expected on January 22.
Three separate suits have been brought by the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), human rights lawyer Femi Falana and former lawmaker Farouk Adamu Aliyu.
The NBA case was deferred to Thursday next week because the lawyers need time to prepare a response to arguments presented by the attorney general.
Falana, who dismissed Wednesday\’s court ruling as "meaningless", demanded that Judge Dan Abutu, who made that ruling, recuse himself from the current case and the file has been given to another judge. No date has been fixed to hear Falana\’s case.
"There was a judgement delivered in this case yesterday in which the chief justice made very profound, definitive pronuncement on the reliefs I am seeking in court," Falana told reporters outside the courtroom. "I therefore felt that I needed to have another judicial opinion".
The ruling "has not addressed the vacuum on the ground," Falana said.
Wednesday\’s court ruling focused on a section of the constitution which states that executive powers are vested in the president, and may be exercised directly by him or through the vice president or ministers.
Justice Minister Michael Aondoaaka, who is also Nigeria\’s attorney general, said the ruling had exonerated the government\’s position that there is no power vacuum in the African giant.
But Thursday\’s cases seek to bring a separate clause of the constitution to bear on Yar\’Adua\’s leadership, which lawyers say requires the president to officially hand over powers to Jonathan as acting head of state.