U.S. congratulates Nigeria's acting leader

LAGOS Fri Feb 12, 2010 4:44am EST

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LAGOS (Reuters) - The United States on Friday congratulated Nigeria for maintaining democratic principles after Vice President Goodluck Jonathan assumed executive powers in the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua.

Washington is the first major foreign power to publicly comment since Jonathan took over as acting head of state on Tuesday to fill a power vacuum left by Yar'Adua's more than two month absence for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.

"The U.S. government congratulates Acting President Goodluck Jonathan," U.S. Ambassador Robin Saunders said in a statement.

"We believe that the principles of democracy have been served well in Nigeria through the leadership shown by the National Assembly, the Governors' Forum, several ministers and the courts in finding a way out of the political impasse."

The OPEC member is a major supplier of crude oil to the United States.

Parliament has recognized Jonathan as acting head of state in an effort to end uncertainty that has threatened to paralyze government business in Africa's most populous nation and reignite violence in the main oil region.

The fact that there was no formal transfer of power for more than two months had led to doubts over who was in charge and raised the prospect of the worst political crisis since the end of military rule more than a decade ago.

The country's powerful state governors, former military heads of state, the opposition and some members of the judiciary had all called for Yar'Adua to formally hand over.

But the Jonathan's assumption of power without a formal letter to parliament from the country's ailing president has no precedent and is not explicitly backed by the constitution.

Some opposition politicians and senior lawyers have argued that the move as illegal.

U.S. Ambassador Saunders said it was now important for Nigeria to organize credible national elections due in 2011.

The polls that brought Yar'Adua to power in 2007 were so marred by voter intimidation and ballot stuffing that they were deemed not to be credible by observers and legal challenges undermined his authority in the early part of his term.

(Editing by Matthew Tostevin)

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