ABUJA, Nigeria, Feb. 10 (UPI) -- Nigeria's Parliament has named Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as acting president in the absence of the ailing Umaru Yar'Adua, hoping to avert political turmoil that could threaten Africa's second-largest oil producer.
There are even fears of an army coup that would likely return Africa's most populous state to the kind of military dictatorship that existed between 1966 and 1999 and the wholesale plundering carried out by the generals.
Yar'Adua, 58, has been hospitalized in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, since Nov. 23 with a heart condition. But he has never formally handed over power to his deputy during his three-month absence.
That has plunged the West African state into a seething constitutional crisis, fueled by suspicions that Yar'Adua's condition is graver than is being reported and that he will never return to the presidency.
This in turn has ignited a power struggle between the political barons in the Muslim-dominated north, where Yar'Adua has his power base, and the largely Christian south, where Jonathan hails from.
At the same time, Yar'Adua's absence has paralyzed a peace process aimed at ending a five-year rebellion in the oil-rich Niger Delta in the south, threatening an October cease-fire that is already seen to be unraveling.
The main insurgent force, the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, has said it is ready to take up arms again because the government has not kept its part of the peace bargain.
At least one oil pipeline has already been blown up and more attacks are feared unless a settlement is quickly found regarding the mushrooming political crisis.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned that "tensions are mounting, with huge security implications for the oil-producing giant and the wider region."
"If Abuja does not resolve the impasse over its leadership and return governance to a clear constitutional track very soon, it will spell disaster."
Regarding the delta oil fields, where international majors such as Chevron, Anglo-Dutch Shell and ENI of Italy operate, the ICG warned: "Attacks on oil installations have resumed after a long break and criminal gangs are once again seizing foreign oil workers for ransom …
"The signs could not be more ominous."
Until earlier this month, Nigeria's 36 state governors, who wield immense influence, appeared to collectively support government continuity. But now they are reported to be divided.
"It appears that a north-south split is emerging among the governors over whether Yar'Adua should remain, with southerners pushing for Jonathan and northerners arguing for no change at all," according to Texas-based security consultancy Stratfor.
The ICG stressed the "growing public perception that corruption has accelerated and that nobody can call anybody to order" could result in a military coup.
"If the constitutional confusion deepens, ambitious military officers have a pretext to stage a coup, erasing the country's democratic gains," it warned.
The army has said it has no intention of returning to politics, but there are concerns that if the crisis deteriorates the generals may decide to act.
The generals have already imposed "temporary" military rule in the northern city of Jos, where 300 people perished in bloodletting between Muslims and Christians a few weeks ago. That was the latest of a long series of murderous sectarian clashes.
The political crisis between north and south may well exacerbate these religious differences.
There is the danger that it will also enflame the rebellion in the southern oil fields, with the generals deciding that a military rather than a political solutions is required to ensure the oil keeps flowing.
Delta oil provides around 85 percent of the nation's revenues, and any serious cutback could inflict grave economic damage.
As it is, the rebellion has reduced production by almost one-third, to 1.6 million barrels per day.
In the wider regional context, Nigeria in turmoil can only exacerbate political problems across West Africa, which could undermine a regional oil boom that is expected to account for one-fifth of U.S. oil imports over the next few years.
Nigeria, the paramount military power in the region, dominates the Economic Community of West African States, which is deeply involved in seeking to dampen political unrest in Guinea and Niger.