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Acting leader unsure of Nigerian president's illness

By Tom Evans, CNN
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Nigeria's acting leader on elections
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Acting Nigeria leader: Not seen ailing leader Umaru Yar'Adua since his return
  • Yar'Adua has not been seen in public since last November; illness undisclosed
  • Violence between Christians and Muslims exploded near city of Jos in March

(CNN) -- Acting Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said he hasn't seen the country's ailing leader Umaru Yar'Adua since Yar'Adua's return from medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and doesn't know the nature of his illness.

Yar'Adua has not been seen in public since last November, when he went to Saudi Arabia for treatment of an undisclosed illness. He returned to Nigeria in February, but has remained out of sight.

"The thinking of the family is that they should insulate him from most of the key actors in government," Jonathan told CNN's Christiane Amanpour in his first interview with international or local media since he became acting president two months ago.

Asked if he would like to visit Yar'Adua, Jonathan said, "Yes, of course, but I will not want to force (it)."

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Jonathan dismissed suggestions that supporters of Yar'Adua are working against him.

"I wouldn't say they are trying to undermine me, because the laws of the land are very clear," he said. And he refused to say whether or not he is planning to run in Nigeria's next presidential election, in 2011.

"You cannot just wake up and say you want to contest an election to be the president of a country," Jonathan said. "First of all, you must see whether you can really bring the dividends of democracy. I have just set up a Cabinet. We have given ourselves three months, after which we review ourselves. And I tell people, if I'm not satisfied, why is it my business to contest the elections?"

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He also sidestepped questions on whether he thinks the head of the country's election commission, Maurice Iwu, should be fired in an effort to reform Nigeria's discredited electoral system. Jonathan said Iwu's performance will be reviewed as well -- but he added, "The perception is that the feeling back home and in the international community is that he cannot conduct a free and fair election."

Jonathan spoke to CNN on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in Washington, where he and other world leaders discussed ways to secure nuclear material from terrorists. He also met President Barack Obama -- an indication of Nigeria's importance as Africa's most populous nation and biggest oil exporter.

The acting Nigerian president said there were more pressing problems facing Africa than the possibility that unsecured nuclear materials could end up in the hands of terrorists.

He told Amanpour, "Africans have died more from small arms and light weapons ... and they've all been shipped into Africa."

Asked whether he can re-energize the peace process in the troubled oil-rich Niger Delta, and reach a lasting deal with insurgents, Jonathan said, "You have to properly integrate them into the society. So during the process of rehabilitation, you must reorientate their thinking and make them learn some skills that will enable them (to) earn a decent living."

Jonathan also spoke about the recent new explosion of violence between Muslim and Christian Nigerians near the central city of Jos that claimed hundreds of lives in March, only weeks after he assumed office. He said there are a lot of settlers in the region and the indigenous community feels it has been excluded from the local economy, with the result there's been conflict there since the early 1960's.

Jonathan said traditional rulers, religious leaders and opinion leaders are all responding to his appeals for calm.

"I cannot say it will stop completely, but our commitment is to make sure that it stops," he added.