LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria’s acting leader Goodluck Jonathan was sworn in Thursday as president of Africa’s most populous country, as the body of his predecessor was flown north for a traditional Muslim burial hours after he died following a lengthy illness.
Jonathan put on a sash bearing the green, yellow and white colors of Nigeria, signifying he had formally taken over for President Umaru Yar’Adua though Jonathan had served as acting president for months.
Late Thursday morning, soldiers escorted a stretcher bearing the body of Yar’Adua, wrapped in a Nigerian flag, onto a military cargo plane bound for his native Katsina state. There, a local imam prayed over his corpse before he was buried at a cemetery near his home.
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Yar’Adua, who long had suffered from kidney ailments and was recently hospitalized in Saudi Arabia because of heart inflammation, died Wednesday night after apparently succumbing to his ill health. Officials said he would be buried before sundown Thursday.
Jonathan now will serve as president through next year’s vote, likely to be held by April 2011. He also will be able to select a vice president to serve underneath him, subject to Senate approval.
In a brief address, Jonathan promised that his administration would focus on good governance during its short tenure, focusing especially on electoral reform and the fight against corruption.
“One of the true tests will be that all votes count and are counted in our upcoming presidential election,” Jonathan said.
An unwritten power-sharing agreement within Nigeria’s ruling party calls for the presidency to alternate between Nigeria’s Christians and Muslims. Yar’Adua, a Muslim, was still in his first four-year term though — meaning there could be a political fight brewing in the ruling People’s Democratic Party over allowing Jonathan to contest the presidency.
“Jonathan must be interested in contesting for the presidency, but he still has not revealed his hand and he’s still pretty hesitant about signaling what his intentions are,” said Mark Schroeder, the director of sub-Saharan Africa analysis for STRATFOR, a private security think tank based in Austin, Texas.
“Jonathan will certainly keep his hat in the ring and that will ensure he remains an influence within Nigeria’s political system,” he said. “Whether he has enough support (to run for president) … that’s another big question.”
Yar’Adua’s death came almost three months after Jonathan had assumed control of Nigeria as acting president and less than a year away from the next presidential elections in a country once plagued by military coups. Some Nigerians who awoke to the news of Yar’Adua’s death were initially skeptical, as the masses remained uncertain about the ailing leader’s condition for months.
Yet the streets in Lagos, the country’s spiraling megacity in the south, remained quiet as Jonathan declared the day a public holiday and the start of a seven-day mourning period in the nation of 150 million people.
The oil-rich Niger Delta, which has seen militant attacks throughout the impoverished region since 2006, remained quiet as well, allowing foreign oil companies to pump out crude oil in relative security.
Schroeder said Nigeria’s political leaders knew they needed to quickly swear Jonathan in as president to show the world there was no power vacuum. When Yar’Adua went to a Saudi Arabian hospital on Nov. 24 to receive treatment, he failed to formally transfer his powers to Jonathan, sparking a constitutional crisis.
Jonathan assumed the presidency Feb. 9 after a vote by the National Assembly while Yar’Adua was still in Saudi Arabia.
“The U.S. wants political stability in Nigeria so that’s there’s stability in the oil sector,” Schroeder said.
Nigeria was the No. 4 oil exporter to the U.S. in February, sending about 896,000 barrels of crude a day to the U.S., outstripping even Saudi Arabia.
Jonathan said Thursday that peace in the Niger Delta, home to the country’s oil industry, remains a priority. Attacks by militants there last year crippled oil production. Yar’Adua had tried to peacefully end the insurgency but those efforts frayed due to his increasing illness.
Jonathan said Yar’Adua left a “profound legacy” for him to follow.
“He was not just a boss, but a good friend and a brother,” Jonathan said.