* Dispute over top judge could trigger constitutional crisis
* Lawyers’ body takes legal action against Attorney-General
* Former U.S. envoy warns of risk of military intervention
By Nick Tattersall
LAGOS, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Nigeria is on the brink of constitutional crisis with its ailing president not transferring powers to his deputy and political king makers feuding over his succession, a senior lawyer and a former U.S. envoy have warned.
President Umaru Yar’Adua has been absent from Africa’s most populous nation for more than a month receiving treatment for a heart condition in Saudi Arabia, but there have been no official updates on his health for weeks.
Vice President Goodluck Jonathan has been presiding over cabinet meetings but executive powers have not officially been transferred to him, leading to questions over the legality of decisions made by the government in Yar’Adua’s absence.
The Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), the umbrella body of all lawyers in the country, has launched legal action against the Attorney-General, asking a top court to declare that Yar’Adua has violated the constitution by omitting to transfer powers.
“We are saying there is a duty on the president to do it, it is not discretionary ... We cannot continue this way, we are not running a banana republic,” NBA president Rotimi Akeredolu told Reuters in a telephone interview on Thursday.
“We are treading a very dangerous path and we have to be very careful. We are trying to paper over a few cracks ... but if we are not careful the whole building will collapse,” he said.
The NBA’s legal action follows a similar suit already brought by prominent human rights lawyer Femi Falana.
It also adds to a crisis in the judiciary triggered by the swearing in on Wednesday of a new chief justice, the first time in the country’s history the head of state has been absent for the ceremony and an act some senior lawyers say is illegal.
The legality of the top judge’s position is vital because he who would swear in a new president should Yar’Adua leave office: controversy over the chief justice would mean controversy over the legality of the new president, lawyers say.
Nigeria does not need legal confusion over what is already a fierce succession debate.
“Yar’Adua’s removal from office would result in a political and constitutional crisis for the United States’ most important strategic partner in Africa and one of its largest suppliers of oil,” former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell said.
“Though Yar’Adua has been ill since he assumed the presidency in 2007, there is no consensus yet among the king makers about what to do upon his removal,” he wrote in a paper published on Wednesday by the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S.-based think-tank.
Key to the debate over Yar’Adua’s succession is an unwritten agreement that the office of president rotates every two terms between the predominantly Muslim north and the Christian south.
Yar’Adua is a northerner mid-way through his first term. Jonathan is a southerner, meaning that should he take over if the president leaves office as the constitution states, he would be under pressure not to stand in 2011 presidential elections.
Nervousness among Yar’Adua’s northern “kitchen cabinet” over Jonathan even serving as acting president is what is preventing Yar’Adua from transferring powers, political analysts say.
“This problem has been foisted on us because of a cabal in this country,” Akeredolu said.
The government and presidency officials have said state business is continuing as normal and that Yar’Adua is being consulted on issues needing his attention, such as a supplementary budget which they said this week was taken to him to sign on his sickbed. [ID:nLDE5BS0RS]
But analysts say government business is slowing. Two of Nigeria’s top oil partners, Royal Dutch Shell (RDSa.L) and Chevron (CVX.N), have been in renewal negotiations covering expired licences in Africa’s biggest energy supplier and neither they nor the government have yet announced a resolution.
“The stakes are high ... Continued access to oil revenue will be a powerful incentive for the king makers to find a way out of the current crisis, despite their regional, ethnic and religious divisions,” Campbell said.
He said the best-case scenario would be a constitutional agreement which allowed the country to “limp” towards 2011 elections, but warned that if the struggle between rival factions became prolonged, the army could step in.
“If the current crisis spins out of control, the Nigerian military is likely to intervene, possibly with a nominal civilian head,” said Campbell, who was U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007.
"Nigeria's military, though much weakened, continues to regard itself as the ultimate custodian of the state." (For more Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: af.reuters.com/ ) (Editing by Giles Elgood)