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'I'm not dead', says Nigerian President

Nigerians fear power crisis with their leader stuck in hospital in Saudi Arabia

Breaking a seven-week silence, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua yesterday took to the airwaves from his Saudi hospital bed to reassure his increasingly agitated nation that he was neither dead nor in a coma.

"At the moment I am undergoing treatment, and I'm getting better from the treatment. I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home," the 58-year-old President, his voice sounding weak, told the BBC by telephone.

Mr Yar'Adua, known as Baba-go-Slow for his sluggish pace in enacting reforms, flew to Saudi Arabia on 23 November. His office later announced he had been hospitalised for pericarditis, an inflammation of the heart lining. As the days have ticked by – with Nigerian newspapers putting small calendar tags on their front pages to keep count – consternation has grown.

Nigerians have been grappling with the fall-out of the failed Christmas Day bombing attempted by one of their own; militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta have broken their ceasefire because of stalled talks with the government; and three separate lawsuits have been lodged at the high court to get power handed over to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

The surprise emergence by the Nigerian leader seemed timed to try to take the wind out of the sails of mass protests, led by Nobel literature laureate Wole Soyinka. Hundreds marched through the Nigerian capital, Abuja, yesterday to voice their anger at Africa's most populous nation having no one at the helm.

"Everything has ground to a halt," Mr Soyinka told the crowd. "This has been kept deliberately so because there is a small cabal that profits by not having him in control. Heaven knows what millions are going down the sink on the lack of supervision."

Mere mention of the radio interview brought boos from the crowd, decked out in white T-shirts saying "Enough is Enough" and brandishing placards that demanded "Umaru, where are you?" Many were angry that their President had not spoken directly to them, privileging a foreign media organisation, with some even claiming that the whole three-minute recording was a fake. The BBC said the interview had been organised by the President's office and recorded late on Monday.

"We don't want an offshore president. In short, he is missing," Gboyega Atoyebi, a 28-year-old lawyer, told the Associated Press. "Whether he is coming back or not, we are not deceived by his purported speech on the BBC. We want to see him live. Let him address the Nigerian nation."

A federal court is due to rule tomorrow on whether Mr Yar'Adua is in breach of the constitution. Although Nigerian law allows for a transfer of power from the President to his number two, Mr Yar'Adua chose not to do. So a supplemental budget was sent out to Saudi Arabia for the sick leader to sign and a new chief justice was sworn in in his absence, in violation of the constitution.

Analysts note that transferring power from Mr Yar'Adua, a Muslim northerner, to Mr Jonathan, from the Christian south, would be highly sensitive in Nigeria, where a careful balance between rival groups has been maintained since the return of civilian rule in 1999. But the counter-argument is that a rudderless nation poses an even bigger risk. "It is unfair and even dangerous to allow the power void for a day longer. The vacuum is an open invitation to enemies of democracy to strike," Punch newspaper said in an editorial.

Ayodele Thompson, director of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis in Lagos, says Nigeria has already suffered the consequences, most notably in being put on the US terror watchlist alongside Iran, Syria and Cuba in the wake of the attempted bombing by Nigerian student, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. "If we'd had an active, working President then we wouldn't have been blacklisted," he said. "It's quite simple. The President should hand over to the Vice President so he can act for the country. After all, Mr Yar'Adua couldn't even tell the nation when he might be coming back to lead."

Shrugging off these widespread calls for a transfer of power, the Nigerian parliament yesterday voted instead to send a delegation to Jeddah to check on the President's health.