ABUJA, Jan 12 – Nigerian lawmakers voted on Tuesday to send a delegation to Saudi Arabia to discuss "issues of national importance" with ailing President Umaru Yar\\\’Adua as protests mounted for him to stand down.
The 58-year-old president earlier broke a seven-week silence to insist he is "getting better" and plans to return to work but opposition protesters marched regardless through Abuja to demand he resign.
The lower house of parliament voted to send a delegation to meet Yar\\\’Adua at his hospital bedside and report back its impressions, according to a motion adopted by the House of Representatives. It did not set a date for the delegation\\\’s departure.
The Senate which had tabled a similar motion decided instead to invite the secretary to the government, Yayale Ahmed, to explain the president\\\’s state of health. Yar\\\’Adua: Nigeria\\\’s illness-dogged president
The lawmakers\\\’ move came as the clamour to remove Yar\\\’Adua reached fever-pitch in Africa\\\’s second biggest oil exporter.
Around 2,000 opposition supporters rallied in the capital demanding he hand over power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to speed up electoral and constitutional reforms that have stalled since November 23, when Yar\\\’Adua was flown to Jeddah for treatment for a mystery heart ailment.
It has since emerged he is being treated for acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane around the heart, but little detail has been released by the government.
Wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Enough is Enough", the protestors brandished placards demanding "Yar\\\’Adua speak to us" and "What\\\’s happening to Yar\\\’Adua?".
"The issues are not simply about Yar\\\’Adua being in the country or outside the country. The issues are numerous," Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka told the rally.
"We challenge him on the continuing corrupt company that we see plotting around and controlling affairs from Aso Rock (presidential villa)," said Soyinka, who slammed "the insolence with which the legislators have treated this nation".
Yar\\\’Adua\\\’s condition has been the source of widespread speculation in Nigeria, and on Monday some online publications reported he had died the previous day.
"At the moment I am undergoing treatment, and I\\\’m getting better from the treatment," the BBC quoted him as saying from his hospital bed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home.
"As soon as my doctors discharge me, I will return to Nigeria to resume my duties."
But critics say his being alive, but absent, makes little difference to what they say is a dangerous power vacuum in Africa\\\’s most populous country, split between a Muslim-dominated north and Christian south and grappling with periodic outbreaks of religious violence.
Yar\\\’Adua, who is a Muslim, did not delegate executive powers to his Christian deputy Jonathan when he flew to Saudi Arabia. The law demands he does so in writing.
The main opposition Action Congress said while happy to hear that the head of state is alive, it was disappointed that he chose a foreign media outlet to speak to his country which has been on edge for weeks.
"While we are happy that he is alive, that he spoke, we are disappointed that he chose the BBC to break his silence. It\\\’s quite shameful and a very big disrespect to Nigerians," AC spokesman Lai Mohamed told AFP.
"The fact that he is alive does not say anything about his state of health."
Yar\\\’Adua\\\’s voice sounded weak in the interview.
His absence has coincided with Nigeria being placed on a US terror watchlist after the failed attempt by a 23-year-old Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, to blow up a US airliner on Christmas Day.