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Challenges Ahead for Nigeria's New Acting President

Nigeria's new acting president and commander in chief Goodluck Jonathan is pictured as he takes office in Abuja, 10 Feb 2010

Goodluck Jonathan says his primary focus is driving down double-digit inflation, boosting electricity supplies, and getting the 2010 budget through parliament.

After more than two months of political uncertainty over the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua, Nigeria's new acting president Goodluck Jonathan takes power facing a host of economic and security issues.

Mr. Jonathan's most immediate impact has clearly been economic.

The acting president freed up more than $2 billion from Nigeria's excess crude oil account to help fund state governments. He says his primary focus is driving down double-digit inflation, boosting electricity supplies, and getting the 2010 budget through parliament.

"We see a need to prioritize on a few of the most critical areas which continue to plague our efforts at engendering meaningful economic growth and development. Some of these critical sectors include power, infrastructure, security, generation of employment, and business opportunities for our teeming young men and women," he said.

For Africa's top oil producer, focusing on the economy means ensuring the free flow of crude. Four years of sabotage and killing in the Niger Delta cut oil production by more than one-quarter. But that is now slowly returning to normal since thousands of fighters accepted President Yar'Adua's amnesty offer five months ago.

Opeyemi Agbaje is with the Lagos corporate consulting group Resource and Trust Company.

Challenges Ahead for Nigeria's New Acting President
Challenges Ahead for Nigeria's New Acting President

"The amnesty in the Niger Delta, which has allowed oil production to begin to rise up again which has restored some peace in the region, is threatened. There is fear that that could unravel if the situation is not quickly managed," said Agbaje.

Acting President Jonathan vows to consolidate the gains of the amnesty and is appealing for patience. He says there will be no meaningful development without peace and security.

Some fighters who did not take part in that amnesty say they have broken the ceasefire and are again attacking oil pipelines. But the main rebel group says it will cooperate with Mr. Jonathan if he agrees to their demands for local control of the region's vast energy resources.

Abdulwaheed Omar is President of Nigeria's National Labor Congress.

"It is our hope that he will focus attention on the Niger Delta issue with a view to fulfilling all the promises and agreements reached with the military representatives of the militants," he said.

Battling that rebellion and ultimately securing an amnesty consumed much of President Yar'Adua's first term. Former Information Minister Jerry Gana says Acting President Jonathan must move quickly to secure those gains so he can move on to other challenges.

"Without peace and security, there can not be development and progress in the nation, to ensure that criminals are detected and punished effectively with the issue of restoring fairness, justice, equity," he said.

Gana says the acting president has the power to end Nigeria's collective uncertainty.

"Political will should be demonstrated, decisive action should be taken and give the nation a new lease on life," Gana added.

Mr. Jonathan is moving ahead with preparations for presidential and legislative elections next year. Labor leader Omar says the acting president must make changes before that vote.

"The acting president should ensure that the electoral reforms that every man and woman in Nigeria has canvassed for will see the light of day," he said.

President Yar'Adua's absence has meant delay outside Nigeria as well. The annual summit of the Economic Community of West African States was twice postponed because Mr. Yar'Adua was not present to fulfill his duties as chairman of the regional alliance.

With Mr. Jonathan at the helm, ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs Mahamane Toure says that summit will go ahead on Tuesday.

"We are really pleased with the new development. We have been following with concern what has been happening in Nigeria because Nigeria is the chair of ECOWAS. So we are very pleased with the new development which allows Nigeria to take its full leadership," said Toure.

While his is a temporary appointment, the acting president has moved quickly to make clear that this is now his government to run. In his first day in office, Mr. Jonathan sacked the justice minister without notifying the ruling party.

"These are presidential powers. He has the power to move any of us," comments Information Minister Dora Akunyili

Nigeeria's new acting president and commander in chief Goodluck Jonathan is pictured as he takes office in Abuja, 10 Feb 2010
Nigeeria's new acting president and commander in chief Goodluck Jonathan is pictured as he takes office in Abuja, 10 Feb 2010

Mr. Jonathan's assumption of power has some northern leaders concerned that this southern acting president will disrupt the country's political balance by replacing a northern president when the country's informal power sharing arrangement allows the north another four-year term.

Senate President David Mark says Mr. Jonathan is only the acting president. No one has replaced President Yar'Adua.

"That is not the thing. We don't want people to spread that rumor. He remains the president. But since he is not here, there is somebody who is officially designated to act for him. I know that this type of rumor gains ground easily," said Mark.

Mr. Jonathan says he wants to avoid further division and hopes the president recovers.

"In all this, there are no winners and no losers because, by the grace of God, we have once again succeeded in moving our country forward. We have all shown that our unity as a people, our love for this country, and our hope for its great future can not be shaken," said the acting president. "It is now time for us to move on in a more determined manner to tackle the various challenges which we face as a nation," he urged.

Anything Mr. Jonathan does may be open to legal challenge. Nigeria's constitution specifies that lawmakers may promote the vice president to acting president based on written communication from the president. But Mr. Jonathan's appointment was based on a radio interview in which President Yar'Adua confirmed he is in Saudi Arabia for medical treatment.

Former Minority Leader in the House of Representatives, Farouk Aliyu, has brought suit asking the Federal High Court to issue an injunction invalidating Mr. Jonathan's appointment.