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Nigerian Court Favors Vice President in Dispute with President


A Nigerian court Tuesday ruled that President Olusegun Obasanjo has no power to remove the country's vice president, Atiku Abubakar, who is facing charges of corruption. Gilbert da Costa reports from Abuja that the ruling has eased political tension in the country in weeks before elections in April.

In a ruling that lasted about 90 minutes, the five-member panel of judges of the Court of Appeal - Nigeria's second highest court - said the Nigerian constitution is clear on conditions for removing the vice president.

The judges acknowledged that while the constitution expects the president and the vice president to be of the same political party for the purpose of nomination to contest elections, the constitution did not require their removal in the event that they joined another political party after assuming office.

Mr. Obasanjo declared the vice president's seat vacant in December, and also took steps to ensure that Abubakar did not win the nomination of the ruling People's Democratic party.

The president himself is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Abubakar has been accused of corruption, but he denies the charge and is now planning to run on the ticket of the opposition Action Congress Party.

The vice president's lead counsel, Wole Olanipekun, described the court decision as positive for Nigeria's young democracy.

"It is an epoch-making case," he said. "The first time in the history of our country whereby we came to court, for the court to decide whether or not the the president can rightly declare the seat of his deputy vacant. And the court has done justice to it. It is a very beautiful judgment."

The president and his deputy have been embroiled in a bitter public feud since last year.

Now that the court has made its decision the two men will have to learn to tolerate each other till the end of their tenure at the end of May.

Abdullahi Jalo, a leading member of the ruling People's Democratic Party, says the possibility of reconciliation between the two men is very slim at this point, given the level of animosity that exists.

"The question of reconciliation between them is no longer visible (possible)," Jalo said. "In the first place, they are different political parties. In the second place, some of the utterances of the vice president have been personalized."

Nigeria has vacillated between military and civilian rule for much of the time. In 1999, Mr. Obasanjo, a former army general who was the military ruler in the 1970s, was elected president, ushering in the longest uninterrupted period of elected government in Nigeria.

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