Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua, pictured last year, returned… (Joedson Alves / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Abuja, Nigeria — Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua flew home to Abuja early Wednesday after three months in a Saudi hospital, but his secretive return raised concerns about a deepening power struggle in the ruling party as well as his long-term health.
Two weeks ago Yar'Adua's deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, was appointed acting president by the legislature in a move many called unconstitutional.
Yar'Adua's return came one day after Jonathan sent a series of official appointments to the Senate.
The Yar'Adua faction tried to reassert control Wednesday. A statement by presidential spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi described Jonathan as "vice president," not "acting president."
"After being discharged by the team of medical experts overseeing his treatment in Saudi Arabia, President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua returned to the presidential villa . . . early this morning," Adeniyi said. "While the president completes his recuperation, Vice President Jonathan will continue to oversee the affairs of state."
Yar'Adua, 58, was elected to office in 2007 in a vote that led to widespread allegations of ballot-rigging and intimidation.
He was flown to Jidda in November suffering inflammation of the lining around his heart. He's also known to suffer from kidney problems.
As his absence dragged on, the Save Nigeria Group, an organization of prominent Nigerians that includes Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, called for his impeachment.
The Cabinet is deeply divided between Yar'Adua's supporters, who bitterly opposed the move to appoint Jonathan acting president, and those who supported the transfer of power.
Nigeria's press reported that Jonathan was informed late Tuesday that Yar'Adua was returning. The news reports said Yar'Adua was flown to Nigeria in an air ambulance. He arrived early in the morning and airport staffers were ordered to leave the premises as the plane landed.
The newspaper reports said the plane parked an unusually long distance from the runway and Yar'Adua was transferred to an ambulance under cover of darkness and whisked to his villa.
Deepening the sense of mystery was Yar'Adua's failure to meet a government delegation that had been sent to see him in Jidda. The group was told that he already had flown back to Nigeria.
Yar'Adua's supporters arrived at his presidential villa Wednesday in a festive mood, many of them wearing white to symbolize their celebration of his return. But Yar'Adua was not seen publicly after his arrival, sparking more debate among Nigerians about his medical condition.
"He is back," said the Daily Sun headline. "How doctors packaged him with enhanced fit-to-travel rechargeable batteries."
Underlying the power struggle in Africa's most- populous nation is an unwritten deal within Nigeria's powerful ruling party to alternate the presidency between the predominantly Christian south and largely Muslim north.
Nigeria's population is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians and tensions and outbreaks of violence are common.
Northern power brokers fear that the illness of Yar'Adua, a Muslim northerner, will cheat their side of presidential control and a second term.
Many southerners complain that Yar'Adua's supporters knew that his health was frail when they put him forward as their presidential candidate.
The constitution says an acting president can be appointed only if the president makes a written declaration that he is unable to carry out his duties because of illness, a declaration that Yar'Adua has not made.
The Senate, however, determined that an interview with the BBC discussing his illness was enough to form the basis for a transfer of power, a view questioned by many constitutional lawyers.