LAGOS A leading Nigerian human rights lawyer has launched legal action to try to force President Umaru Yar'Adua to hand executive powers to his deputy while he is receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.
Femi Falana, who was a prominent pro-democracy campaigner during military rule in Nigeria, said on Wednesday that decisions made by the cabinet in Yar'Adua's absence were illegal because he had not formally handed over to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.
Africa's most populous nation risked sliding into crisis if it continued to be unclear who was in charge, he said.
"When the president is not around and there is no acting president, the business of government will simply be paralyzed," Falana said in a telephone interview, a day after filing his law suit with a federal high court in the capital Abuja.
"(The aim) is to compel President Yar'Adua to hand over formally to the vice president," he said.
The 58-year-old leader was flown to a clinic in Jeddah more than three weeks ago after complaining of chest pains and has been diagnosed with acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane around the heart that can restrict normal beating.
The cabinet has dismissed calls for him to resign.
Justice Minister and Attorney-General Michael Aondoakaa was quoted on Wednesday as saying that Yar'Adua could exercise his presidential powers from anywhere in the world.
"Until President Yar'Adua says he cannot exercise his presidential powers on the country in view of his ill health, he is still president with presidential powers over the country," he was quoted by the Daily Trust newspaper as saying.
Nigeria's constitution states that the president should write to the heads of the two chambers of parliament if he is leaving on holiday or otherwise unable to govern, and that the vice-president takes over until he writes to the contrary.
But presidency officials have said Yar'Adua is responding to treatment, while the government has said state business is going on normally, with the vice president overseeing weekly meetings of the cabinet, or Federal Executive Council.
"On issues that would require Mr President's express approval, contacts are being made and such approvals do come," Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, secretary to the government who coordinates between the presidency and ministries, said two weeks ago.
Falana said decisions taken by the cabinet -- including the awarding of contracts worth several million dollars -- were illegal because only the president had the authority to oversee them if he failed to appoint an acting head of state.
He said government business was already being affected, with a supplementary 2009 budget unable to be signed into law and the Court of Appeal without any leadership because its president retired last month and only Yar'Adua could appoint a successor. Nigeria's Chief Justice is also due to retire by December 31.
"Once you allow this situation to drag on, the crisis will get complicated," Falana said.
Falana filed his suit on Tuesday but the high court has yet to set a date for hearing it.
(Editing by Tume Ahemba/David Stamp)