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Nigerian President's Health Fueling Political Tensions

Presidential spokesman says Vice President Goodluck Jonathan will represent him at official functions

Nigerian officials say President Umaru Yar'Adua is responding well to treatment for a heart ailment at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. The president's poor health creates a constitutional challenge for Africa's most populous nation.

A presidential spokesman says Vice President Goodluck Jonathan will represent President Umaru Yar'Adua at official functions, but dismissed suggestions that the ailing Nigerian leader may resign.

And while the vice president may be acting on behalf of the hospitalized president, analysts argue Mr. Jonathan may not be able to exercise full presidential duties until constitutional requirements are met. Abuja-based lawyer and political analyst, Maxi Okwu, describes the current situation as an infraction of the constitution.

"There is a constitutional process for the president being absent or incapable of discharging his functions at this material time," said Okwu. "There ought to be a letter addressed to the senate president stating so; that he should inform the national assembly that he is absent, that he is in Saudi Arabia recuperating. But until that is done, the vice president cannot take over. He cannot be acting president under the constitution of Nigeria and that is an infraction of the constitution and should not be allowed."

The president's poor health presents what some see as another potential political problem. If incapacitated, President Yar'Adua, a Muslim from the north, could be replaced by Vice President Jonathan, a Christian from the southern Niger Delta. Nigeria's politically dominant northern Muslims have historically rejected a southern presidency.

According to the ruling People's Democratic Party's own formula for sharing power among the country's political regions, the president must be a northerner.

A report in the national daily newspaper "Punch" said the vice president had been asked to resign and make way for a presidential election, which will give the north another opportunity to present a candidate from the region.

The vice president has dismissed the report, calling it "sheer mischief." Most southerners want the constitutional order to be followed if President Yar'Adua were to step down or die.

Mr. Yar'Adua went to Saudi Arabia last week for what was officially said to be a medical check-up after complaining of severe chest pains.

The Nigerian president, who is 58, is widely believed to have a history of kidney-related disease for which he has previously received hospital treatment in both Germany and Saudi Arabia.