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Adviser: Nigeria's ill president returns home

In this Wednesday July 29, 2009 file photo, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua attends an agreement signing ceremony at the Itamaraty palace in Brasilia, Brazil.
In this Wednesday July 29, 2009 file photo, Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua attends an agreement signing ceremony at the Itamaraty palace in Brasilia, Brazil.
Eraldo Peres, Associated Press

LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigeria's ailing president returned home Wednesday after a three-month stay in a Saudi Arabian hospital, an adviser said, adding that the leader needed time to recuperate and so the vice president would remain in charge.

Shaky television footage showed an ambulance leaving the presidential wing of the capital airport but offered no images of President Umaru Yar'Adua, who has not been seen in public since leaving Nigeria on Nov. 23.

His long absence had raised concerns about who was in charge of the oil-rich, fragile West African country and had prompted lawmakers to put the nation's vice president into power just two weeks ago.

And his condition has largely remained a mystery — those surrounding Yar'Adua blocked a delegation of lawmakers from visiting him earlier this month and he has given only one radio interview since leaving for Saudi Arabia.

A statement Wednesday from presidential spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi said Goodluck Jonathan would continue to serve as acting president. That decision appears to protect Jonathan's position, but also raises questions about Yar'Adua's health.

"President Yar'Adua wishes to reassure all Nigerians that on account of their unceasing prayers and by the special grace of God, his health has greatly improved," the statement read. "However, while the president completes his recuperation, Vice President Jonathan will continue to oversee the affairs of state."

The statement offered no other details about Yar'Adua's health. He has been plagued by poor health and kidney ailments, and his physician released a statement saying the president also suffered from acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart.

Abdullah Aminchi, Nigeria's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said Yar'Adua needs time to recuperate before assuming presidential powers.

"He's already walking. He eats. He can move about," the ambassador said. "I think he just needs some time to rest and he can go back to his work as president of Nigeria."

Reporters at the presidential villa caught no glimpse of the president but saw Yar'Adua's chief aide, Col. Onoyveta Mustapha, before a scheduled meeting of the Cabinet on Wednesday.

Mustapha had been one of only a few trusted aides who stayed with and had access to Yar'Adua while he received treatment at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital and Research Center in Jeddah.

Though the country's constitution calls for the president to offer a written letter empowering the vice president to take over in his absence, Yar'Adua did not follow that procedure. The Nigerian government ground to a halt in Yar'Adua's absence.

Before leaving Nigeria, he brokered a cease-fire with the main militant group in the Delta. But the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta called off the cease-fire during his absence and vowed to burn oil installations to the ground.

After more than two months of a standstill, the National Assembly voted to empower Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to take over as acting president. However, the parliament's action specified that Jonathan had to cede power to Yar'Adua upon his return if he's medically capable of leading the nation of 150 million.

The lawmakers' vote also went beyond the process envisioned by the constitution, presenting questions on how exactly Jonathan would transfer power back to Yar'Adua.

During Yar'Adua's 2007 presidential campaign, he left the country two weeks before the vote to receive medical care in Germany after experiencing what he described as a shortness of breath. His absence sparked enough concern then that outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo even made a telephone call to Yar'Adua during a political rally to ask his candidate: "Umaru, are you dead?"

Despite those health concerns, Yar'Adua became president through an election marred by fraud, intimidation and violence. It marked the first time power was transferred from one elected civilian to another in Nigeria, which became independent from Britain in 1960.

News of Yar'Adua's return received a quick response from the U.S., where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has issued calls to Nigeria to respect and follow its constitution. In a statement Wednesday, Assistant Secretary of State Johnnie Carson said the U.S. welcomed Yar'Adua's return, but still had concerns about the nation's future.

"Recent reports ... continue to suggest that President Yar'Adua's health remains fragile and that he may still be unable to fulfill the demands of his office," Carson said. "We hope that President Yar'Adua's return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisers to upset Nigeria's stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process."

Associated Press Writer Bashir Adigun contributed to this report from Abuja, Nigeria.