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Nigerian Protesters Dismiss Ailing President's BBC Comments

Gilbert da Costa | Abuja 12 January 2010

Thousands of Nigerian opposition figures and rights activists staged a protest march in the capital, Abuja, on Tuesday to demand ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua hand over power to his deputy.

It was a party atmosphere as the protesters drummed and chanted anti-government slogans during the five-kilometer walk to the forecourt of the National Assembly. Some carried placards and banners demanding, "Umaru, where are you?" and "We want electoral reforms now."

First to address them was Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. He told the cheering crowd that the government had treated Nigerians with contempt over the president's illness and long absence from Nigeria.

"The nation has been despised and treated with contempt," Soyinka said. "We've been treated as colonials, colonialised all over, this time by internal colonialism. We are all dignified beings who deserve to know the truth at all times about our methods of governance."

Another speaker was a leading politician from the north, Farouk Aliyu, dismissed reports that the ailing president broke a seven-week silence by speaking to the BBC on Tuesday. He also criticized what he claimed was a conspiracy by some politicians in the north to deny Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, a southern Christian from the oil producing region, from taking over from Mr.Yar'Adua, even temporarily.

"We will only believe them when we see Yar'Adua here," Aliyu said. "If you do not want Jonathan to lead, do not take the fuel or petroleum from Ijaw people. If my brothers want to continue to use the petrol, the diesel, the fuel from the south-south then Jonathan should take over today."

State-owned radio and television have played up Mr. Yar'Adua's comments on BBC that he is getting better and hopes to be back soon.

Analysts say the long absence of President Yar'Adua for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia is stalling governance in Nigeria as his deputy has not been constitutionally empowered to act.

The 58-year-old president's condition has been the subject of intense speculation in Nigeria, and the telephone interview may have eased anxieties that he was brain damaged, in a coma or even dead.

But the main opposition Action Congress is upset that the president chose a foreign media outlet to speak to his country and is demanding that Mr. Yar'Adua speak to the local media as well.

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