, ABUJA, May 6 – Nigeria president Umaru Yar\’Adua has died, leaving Acting President Goodluck Jonathan to take over in this oil-rich nation riven by often-violent religious and political divisions.
Early on Thursday, the president\’s office confirmed media reports that the president, who had been sick and virtually incommunicado for several months, had died late the previous night.
"President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is dead. He passed away on Wednesday night in the Presidential Villa, Abuja," Jonathan\’s spokesman, Ima Niboro said in the statement.
The president of Africa\’s most populous nation died after more than five months battling a heart ailment, a condition that in November took him to Saudi Arabia for treatment at a Jeddah hospital.
There he stayed for more than three months, amid growing concern about the power vacuum at the top until parliament finally handed power to his deputy, Jonathan.
Now Jonathan, under the terms of the constitution, will be sworn in as the new president.
In a statement, the new president declared seven days of mourning and expressed shock at the death of his predecessor.
"Nigeria has lost the jewel on its crown, and even the heavens mourn with our nation tonight," Niboro\’s statement quoted Jonathan as saying.
"As individuals and as a nation we prayed for the recovery of Mr President. But we take solace in the fact that the Almighty is the giver and taker of all life," Jonathan said.
As a mark of respect, Jonathan cancelled all official engagements, including a three-day visit to southern Rivers State in oil-rich Niger Delta, which he had been due to begin on Thursday.
Yar\’Adua will be buried in his northern Katsina State on Thursday, which had been declared a work-free day, Niboro said. During the mourning period, Nigerian flags will be flown at half-mast.
United States President Barack Obama expressed sadness at the death of Yar\’Adua, praising him as a man with a passionate belief in his nation\’s future in a statement issued Wednesday.
"Tonight, we remember and honour President Yar\’Adua\’s profound personal decency and integrity, his deep commitment to public service, and his passionate belief in the vast potential and bright future of Nigeria\’s 150 million people," he said.
"He was committed to creating lasting peace and prosperity within Nigeria\’s own borders, and continuing that work will be an important part of honouring his legacy.
In neighbouring Benin, President Boni Yayi paid his own tribute.
"With the loss of this great statesman… Benin, my country, loses a great friend and I am very upset," he told AFP.
Since his return to Nigeria from Saudi Arabia in February, Yar\’Adua, 58, had not been seen in public, nor was any information released as to the state of his health.
But there was constant tension between his supporters and those of Acting President Jonathan.
On March 17, Jonathan sacked the entire Yar\’Adua-formed cabinet, and last month swore in his own team with less than half of its members drawn from the old government.
With Yar\’Adua\’s death, Jonathan automatically becomes head of state of one of the world\’s leading oil producers, and will complete his predecessor\’s term of office, which expires in May 2011.
The acting president has already promised free and fair elections, but has said little about his own political plans.
In an agreement designed to defuse the political and religious rivalries between the north and south, the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) has an arrangement by which Christians and Muslims alternate in the top job.
Under this agreement, the leadership was reserved for a northern Muslim for eight years from 2007: Goodluck Jonathan is a southern Christian.
Yar\’Adua\’s death comes at a difficult time for Africa\’s most populous nation.
Muslim-Christian violence erupted in central Nigeria earlier this year in which hundreds of people were killed, while in the south there has been renewed unrest in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Yar\’Adua, Nigeria\’s third elected civilian president was recognised for his honesty in this corruption-ridden west African country.
But his failing health and, arguably, a lack of charisma, prevented him from enacting his reform agenda.