Nigeria's stand-in leader Goodluck Jonathan sacks cabinet

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Nigeria's Acting President, Goodluck Jonathan, dissolved the cabinet last night in a bid to consolidate his authority at the helm of Africa's most populous nation a month after he assumed executive powers.

The surprise move heightens immediate uncertainty in the nation, leaving civil servants in charge of ministries until new ministers are screened and approved – a process which could take weeks. In the interim, Mr Jonathan will be Nigeria's sole administrator because, as acting head of state, he has no deputy.

"He did not give us any reason for the dissolution of the cabinet. Permanent secretaries will take charge of the ministries from tomorrow," said the outgoing Information minister, Dora Akunyili, after a lengthy cabinet meeting.

Mr Jonathan took over as acting President in early February, towards the end of President Umaru Yar'Adua's three-month absence for treatment for a heart condition in a Saudi clinic. The 58-year-old leader has since returned to Nigeria but remains too ill to rule.

Mr Jonathan's efforts to assert his authority come as Nigeria tries to contain violence in the "middle belt" between its mostly Muslim north and largely Christian south, which has killed hundreds this year, and as militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta threaten to unleash a renewed campaign of attacks.

The governors of Nigeria's 36 states and senior ruling party officials will now put forward nominees for new ministers. Mr Jonathan will decide on a shortlist which will then be screened and approved by the Senate.

Precedent suggests the process could be drawn out as rival interest groups jockey for position. Much will depend on who is selected for the new cabinet, with the risk that some disaffected former ministers mount court challenges to the constitutional legality of his assumption of executive powers and therefore his authority to sack them.