ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua returned under cover of darkness on Wednesday from three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reviving uncertainty over the leadership of Africa’s most populous nation.
Vice President Goodluck Jonathan will continue to run state business as Yar’Adua recuperates, but the secrecy surrounding his return raised concern that the 58-year-old leader will be too frail to resume office in the major oil exporter.
“The ship of state is on course,” Jonathan said in his first public comments since Yar’Adua’s return almost 24 hours earlier. “It is at times like this that all patriots must rise to the occasion and place the interest of the country above every other consideration,” he said in a statement.
Yar’Adua was whisked by ambulance from Abuja airport in the early hours under tight security. There was no inspection of the presidential guard or formal reception by dignitaries as might be expected after such a long absence.
Sources close to the presidency said the ailing leader had been in a mobile intensive care unit since his arrival and that Jonathan had not met him directly.
“The secrecy that shrouded his packaged return is a prima facie evidence that President Yar’Adua is incapable of exercising executive powers,” the CNPP opposition grouping said. “We demand to see our president.”
Yar’Adua’s absence brought sub-Saharan Africa’s second biggest economy, an OPEC member, to the brink of constitutional crisis and threatened to paralyze the business of government.
Analysts say those close to Yar’Adua, including his powerful wife Turai, have been worried by Jonathan’s assertive behavior since he assumed executive powers two weeks ago, and wanted the president back quickly, raising the prospect of a power tussle.
“We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisers to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process,” U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said in a statement.
The return of Yar’Adua and his aides could limit Jonathan’s room to address priorities he set out such as the amnesty for rebels in the oil-producing Niger Delta, improving power supplies, ensuring fair elections and fighting corruption.
After a hurriedly summoned cabinet briefing, Information Minister Dora Akunyili said Jonathan had spoken to Yar’Adua’s aides and would meet his wife later on Wednesday. “When he is eventually briefed by our president, he will call us again,” Akunyili said, giving no idea when that might be.
After taking over as Acting President, Jonathan adopted the mantle of leadership. Some politicians suggested he could run in polls due by April 2011 and have been positioning themselves for what one newspaper called a “post-Yar’Adua era.”
Who gets the presidency is complicated by ethnic rivalries and many northerners believe Yar’Adua’s largely Muslim north should keep the top position even if he can’t stand. Jonathan is from the Niger Delta in the more heavily Christian south.
Militants said they sought more amnesty talks before deciding whether to reinstate a ceasefire they dropped during Yar’Adua’s absence, threatening to renew attacks.
The cabinet has twice passed resolutions that there are no grounds to declare Yar’Adua unfit but splits have emerged between loyalists and ministers who feel he should step aside.
Financial markets have largely ignored the political crisis in Nigeria, tipped by foreign fund managers as a country with great potential because of its Africa’s biggest energy resources and 140 million people.
The naira was barely changed on Friday, benchmark bond yields eased slightly across most of the curve and the All-Share index closed up 0.33 percent.
“Nobody likes uncertainty. We are getting closer to closure,” said Bismarck Rewane of Lagos-based Financial Derivatives Consultancy.
Yar’Adua has been receiving treatment for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart that can restrict normal beating, and also is known to suffer from a chronic kidney condition.
Many Nigerians were skeptical Yar’Adua would resume office.
“Seeing is believing. He’s our president, he should appear on television. Let’s wait and see,” said civil servant Abolaji Habib, 49, in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city.