ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigerian Vice President Goodluck Jonathan removed the powerful justice minister on Wednesday in his first major step since assuming executive powers in the absence of President Umaru Yar'Adua.
Jonathan assumed full presidential powers late on Tuesday to fill a power vacuum left by the ailing 58-year-old leader, who has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia since late November receiving treatment for a heart condition.
Outgoing Justice Minister and Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa had been among the group of ministers who held out most strenuously against formally transferring power to Jonathan during Yar'Adua's absence of more than two months.
"There was a swap in the cabinet. I am now the minister of special duties while the minister of labour takes over from me," Aondoakaa told reporters after a six-hour cabinet meeting.
Former Special Duties Minister Ibrahim Kazaure will replace outgoing Labour Minister Adetokunbo Kayode in the reshuffle.
Aondoakaa had been a key figure in the Yar'Adua-appointed cabinet and was embroiled in a public row with Information Minister Dora Akunyili, who last week tabled a motion that Yar'Adua should formally hand over powers.
"There were those who had relied on him in Yar'Adua's absence as an unofficial prime minister," said Antony Goldman, a Nigeria expert and head of London-based PM Consulting.
"He's still in the cabinet, but clearly the justice minister is a pivotal appointment, particularly at this moment."
Akunyili said the cabinet recognised Jonathan as acting president and pledged to support him but some analysts expect there could be a further reshuffle in the coming days or weeks.
Legal questions remain over how Jonathan announced he was assuming presidential powers in Africa's most populous nation hours after parliament recognised him as acting head of state.
The constitution says the president must write informing parliament of his absence before powers are transferred, but Yar'Adua has written no such letter.
Although Jonathan's empowerment means he can sign laws and act as commander-in-chief, alleviating immediate concerns about paralysis in government, political uncertainty is likely to continue as rival factions in the ruling party jockey for position ahead of elections due early next year.
"We view yesterday's decision as only a near-term solution to the brewing constitutional crisis," Standard & Poor's said, maintaining its B+/Stable/B foreign and local currency ratings on the country.
"The power struggle and fault lines within the national political elite ... are in our view likely to intensify in the run-up to the election, providing for a volatile and unpredictable political environment."
If he achieves nothing else, investors hope Jonathan can maintain relative stability in the Niger Delta, the restive heartland of the OPEC member's mainstay oil industry.
Yar'Adua last year spearheaded the most comprehensive effort yet to end the unrest, an amnesty which saw thousands of gunmen lay down weapons in return for clemency and the promise of jobs.
His absence has slowed the programme's implementation and Jonathan pledged to make the region a priority.
The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, the main group behind years of attacks on oil facilities, said in an email to Reuters it was monitoring developments but declined to say whether it would reinstate a ceasefire.
The militant group last month called off a 3-month truce and threatened to unleash an "all-out onslaught" against Africa's biggest oil and gas industry.
The Joint Revolutionary Council, a coalition of ex-militants and community leaders, said Jonathan's takeover was illegal and warned of further unrest, although its ability to carry out attacks is unclear.
Akinaka Richard, a Niger Delta activist who sits on a government committee responsible for implementing the amnesty, said Yar'Adua's absence had meant there had been no agreement on the budget for part of the programme, causing it to stall.
But he said his committee was due to meet with Jonathan within the week to agree the budget framework.
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Additional reporting by Austin Ekeinde in Port Harcourt, Carolyn Cohn and Tom Bergin in London; Writing by Nick Tattersall; Editing by Matthew Tostevin