Nigerian speaker steps aside after weeks of chaos

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ABUJA, Oct 30 (Reuters) The speaker of Nigeria's House of Representatives, at the centre of a corruption scandal, stepped aside today after weeks of chaos that have paralysed the legislature and delayed the federal budget.

An in-house investigation last month found that Patricia Etteh had broken House rules in awarding contracts worth 5 million dollars to renovate two official residences and buy 10 new cars, causing proceedings in the chamber to descend into farce.

Etteh has repeatedly refused to step aside to allow a temporary speaker to chair a debate on the findings of the investigation. This caused her allies and opponents to tussle on the floor of the House and one of her supporters collapsed and died after over-exerting himself.

She finally caved in to pressure today.

''I am peace loving ... I am therefore not insensitive to the happenings in the House,'' she said as the Assembly resumed work after the latest of several breaks she ordered to give herself time to rally support -- unsuccessfully.

An overwhelming majority of members voted that she should step aside. They elected one of her opponents, Terngu Tsegba, to chair the debate on the contracts scandal and the House went into a closed-door session to decide how this would be done.

The president's presentation of the 2008 federal budget to the National Assembly has already been delayed by several weeks because of the chaos in the House, which has yet to debate a single piece of legislation since it was inaugurated in June.

Outside the National Assembly, hundreds of labour union members staged an anti-Etteh demonstration just before the session, carrying banners that said ''No to corruption'' and ''EFCC where are you now?'' in reference to the anti-graft police.

President Umaru Yar'Adua, who took office in May following elections tainted by widespread vote-rigging and political violence, has tried to stay out of the debacle in the House, arguing that he should not intervene in the legislature.

But as head of the ruling People's Democratic Party which has an overwhelming majority in the National Assembly and ensured Etteh's emergence as speaker, Yar'Adua has been under increasing pressure to help sort out the mess.

The elections that brought Yar'Adua to power were condemned as ''not credible'' by European observers and he has sought to counter his perceived lack of legitimacy by presenting a strong message of morality, transparency and respect for the law.

The soft-spoken president's personal style is discreet and he has spoken in praise of simple living, but his attempt to change the culture of profligacy among Nigeria's ruling class has been undermined by daily headlines about the Etteh scandal.

REUTERS RJ ND2108

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