The motions, backed by the majority of members of both chambers, enable Jonathan to pass legislation and act as commander of the armed forces until President Umaru Yar’Adua declares he is fit enough to resume his duties.
“The Vice President … shall henceforth discharge the functions of the office of the president, commander in chief of the armed forces of the federation, as acting president,” the Senate motion said.
The move takes Africa’s most populous nation into uncharted political territory.
The constitution makes no provision for parliament to make such a move, saying the president must make a written declaration that he is on vacation or unable to carry out his duties before such a transfer of powers can take place.
Yar’Adua has been in Saudi Arabia receiving treatment for a heart condition for more than two months and his failure to formally hand over to Jonathan has risked bringing government business to a grinding halt.
The Nigerian ambassador in Saudi Arabia, who has given occasional updates on Yar’Adua’s health, could not immediately be reached to comment on parliament’s move.
“The last 78 days have been very challenging to us as a nation … We have examined all the options available to us and rightly concluded it is necessary to take this stand and allow the country to move forward,” Senate President David Mark said.
In a speech to the upper house, he acknowledged that the motion tested Nigeria’s laws but said parliament had to do what was necessary “when faced with a situation that was not contemplated by the constitution”.
Mark said an interview given by Yar’Adua in Saudi Arabia and broadcast by the BBC on January 12 was evidence enough of his absence for medical treatment.
“A rigid and inflexible interpretation will not only stifle the spirit and (intention) of the constitution but will also affront the doctrine of necessity,” Mark said.
“We came to the conclusion that the president through his declaration transmitted worldwide on the BBC has furnished this parliament with irrefutable proof that he is on medical vacation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Both the Senate and House of Representatives made clear that Jonathan would hold executive powers only until the president could return to office.
Despite the constitutional question mark over the move, Jonathan’s empowerment means that government business can continue if Yar’Adua’s absence continues for a long period.
The House of Representatives was due to debate the 2010 budget during its closed session on Tuesday, paving the way for the spending plans to be signed into law in Yar’Adua’s absence.
“This is a move in the right direction. We are moving closer to closure. But the next step is not very clear,” said Bismarck Rewane, chief executive of Lagos-based consultancy Financial Derivatives, adding it was unclear whether the vice president would now need to be sworn in as acting head of state. Reuters