Saturday, May 08, 2010

Nigeria: Death Claims the Life of a Patient Leader and President

A Small but Important Fact for My Readers:

Someday, you are going to die.*

Now of course death is not something that I would wish upon anyone but the simple fact is that all human beings must someday say goodbye to this world. Unfortunately, for Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, death came calling a bit too soon (he was only 58 years old). This post is about this gentle and patient leader of Africa’s most populous country, a man who for many of you was somewhat of a mystery on the international stage of world leaders, and a man who was very much a mystery for the nation that he led since being elected in 2007, especially during the last months of his terminal illness.

Some of you may ask, “Why bother paying any attention to Nigeria?” since much of what we hear and read in the mainstream media regarding this country is about the endemic corruption of its politicians and business elite that services the grinding poverty suffered by the majority of Nigerians, the seemingly never-ending turmoil and violence between people in the Muslim north and Christian south of the country, and the militant uprisings, kidnappings, murder, and environmental destruction taking place in the troubled oil-rich Niger Delta region.

I would say the following to doubters and cynics re: Nigeria’s potential and future:

Let us not forget the strategic importance of the people of Nigeria to the world, a people who account for more than 22% of the 800 million people who live in Sub-Saharan Africa, and let us not forget the importance of Nigeria’s abundant natural resources (oil, gas, agriculture, fisheries) and the ingenuity and drive of Nigeria’s most valuable natural resource, its people.

When I think of Nigeria and what Nigerians have contributed to the modern world, I often think of the many Nigerian bloggers, writers, and journalists who have made such a huge contribution to the success of open media and online journalism, and I think about international icons like the scholar and Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka and the World Bank Managing Director Ngozi Oknonjo-Iweala. I treasure the wonderful communication that Nigerians like these “leaders” have so selflessly contributed to all of us in a desperate effort to educate the world about Nigeria’s dynamic people and their beautiful country on Africa’s western coast. This post is for them.

Note*: My lead sentence is borrowed from the opening paragraphs of “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak (Doubleday/Black Swan 2007).

The Passing of a Gentle Man and a Turning Point in the Modern History of Nigeria

Yesterday I left my condolences on the passing of President Yar’Adua in a comment at the blog of a friend and fellow blogger who hails from Nigeria and to my surprise it was echoed in a Global Voices roundup of Nigerian bloggers who were expressing their thoughts and feelings about the death of their president. Granted I have not been following news and developments out of Nigeria as much as I would like to over the past year, but my impression of President Yar’Adua is generally positive in comparison to my sentiments toward most of the country’s past political leaders and military dictators who had ruled Nigeria for much of the past 50 years since the end of colonial rule. Here is an excerpt of what I had to say at my friend Imankoya’s blog “Grandiose Parlor”:

“My condolences on the death of Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua. He may not have been able to accomplish all that he set out to do at the beginning of his administration, but he was able show the world that Nigerians can overcome generations of misrule and plunder by former rulers and dictators, that the country is making progress in a number of important areas (including responsible governance), that endemic corruption and cronyism by politicians and powerful business people can be defeated albeit it is slow and complicated process, and that the country Nigeria is firmly on the road to peace and democracy despite the setbacks we have witnessed during his term in office.”

As I researched news and blog posts about the death of Nigeria’s president I came across a very interesting analysis on the present state of political affairs in Nigeria written by Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies for Current History magazine. Here is an excerpt from what the authors had to say in the article published just a week before President Yar’Adua’s untimely death:

Nigeria: Season of Uncertainty
Current History Magazine – May 2010 issue (cross-published at

"Nothing," wrote Reuben Abati, the editor of Nigeria's The Guardian, "can be more tragic than the present season of uncertainty in which Nigeria has found itself." Indeed, in recent months the country has experienced an extraordinary and often surreal political drama seemingly scripted by a writer of fantasies.

On November 23, 2009, Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua was flown to Saudi Arabia for emergency medical treatment. Confusion swirled about his condition, though the immediate problem was reported to be pericarditis, an inflammation of tissues around his heart.

When, on Christmas Day, a young Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried (but failed) to ignite an explosive device on an airliner that was approaching the airport in Detroit, Michigan, no Nigerian head of state was available to engage with the US government over this alarming event.

Following the attempted attack, the United States placed Nigeria on a terrorism watch list of 14 nations whose air travelers were subjected to increased security screening. (On April 2, that watch list was discarded in favor of a different set of policies.)

Ill-fated politics

Yet, as serious as these developments were, a more intense drama for Nigerians was unfolding in the nation's capital, Abuja. For a harrowing three months, this country of approximately 150 million people was without a captain at the helm.
Yar'Adua had been elected president in April 2007. He owed his position to the political achievements of two individuals: his older brother, Shehu Yar'Adua; and Olusegun Obasanjo, who served on two occasions as head of state. Shehu Yar'Adua had been Obasanjo's deputy when the latter led a military government from 1976 to 1979. The two were accused in 1995 by Sani Abacha, the military dictator at that time, of planning his overthrow. Shehu Yar'Adua was later murdered in prison, but Obasanjo survived and was elected president in 1999.

When Obasanjo in May 2006 failed in an effort to amend the constitution and thus secure a third term in office, he installed as the 2007 presidential candidate of the ruling People's Democratic Party (PDP) the younger Yar'Adua, then the governor of the small northern state of Katsina. Obasanjo proceeded to manipulate Nigeria's political and electoral machinery to ensure Yar'Adua's victory. The outcome was disputed by several losing candidates but was upheld by the Supreme Court in December 2008.

Yar'Adua in some ways resembled another president from northern Nigeria, Shehu Shagari, whom Obasanjo had also shepherded into office, in 1979.

Shagari, a well-meaning patrician, was unable to control the plunderers around him. Military putschists ended his tenure in December 1983, shortly after he had begun a second term in the wake of flawed and chaotic elections.

But Yar'Adua, a northern successor to the southern Obasanjo, was handicapped not only politically but physically. Yar'Adua had been known to suffer from kidney disease even as governor of Katsina. At the time of the Christmas bombing attempt in the United States, the president had been absent for a month, receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, but had not transferred power to his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan.

Nigeria did not even have an ambassador to the United States who could be summoned for consultations, since the US government had earlier rejected the Nigerian designee.

On January 12, 2010, Yar'Adua, most likely provoked by press reports of his dire physical condition, granted a telephone interview to the BBC.

He spoke in a weak voice of his intention to return to Nigeria as soon as his health permitted, but he did not mention any transfer of authority.

Nigeria's 1999 constitution provides two ways for power to be temporarily transferred to the vice president. The simplest mode is the transmission of a letter from the president to the National Assembly informing that body of his absence. The second requires the Federal Executive Council (the cabinet) to appoint, together with the Senate, a medical panel to provide a report on the president. If he is found unable to execute his duties, the vice president is made acting president. Neither of these constitutional paths was taken.

To adopt the term widely used in Nigeria, a "cabal" that consisted of the president's wife, Turai Yar'Adua, along with a few ministers and close political allies, worked to block a full transfer of power to Vice President Jonathan. Meanwhile, throughout the eerie interregnum, Jonathan presided over cabinet meetings that made decisions of questionable legality. Bullying the cabinet and the nation during this political parenthesis was the attorney general and minister of justice, Michael Aondoakaa, who defended Yar'Adua's authority and justified not making Jonathan the officially acting president.

These maneuvers alarmingly recalled the political gyrations that preceded Sani Abacha's assumption of power in November 1993. Then, Moshood Abiola, elected to the presidency in June of that year, was blocked from taking office and subsequently imprisoned, eventually dying behind bars. This time, however, the armed forces did not intervene, either by fully assuming power as they had done several times, or by imposing a military-civilian diarchy, as they did briefly in 1993.

Back from the brink

February 9 and 10, 2010, may be remembered as the days when the Nigerian nation pulled back from a precipice along which it had tottered for more than 11 weeks. Following unanimous votes in the Senate and House of Representatives, Jonathan was declared acting president, a decision subsequently confirmed by the cabinet.

Senior legislators found an ingenious way around constitutional obstacles by citing a "doctrine of necessity," never before invoked in Nigeria. The BBC interview with Yar'Adua, they claimed, fulfilled the constitutional requirement that a letter be transmitted to the National Assembly, albeit via modern technology. Jonathan therefore became acting president through an appointment process that deviated from the two paths set forth in the constitution. One of his first acts was to remove Aondoakaa from his ministry and from the commanding position he had assumed during Yar'Adua's absence.

"Goodluck Jonathan" could be a name invented by whatever mischievous deities look over the Nigerian nation. He had the good luck to be deputy governor of the oil-rich delta state Bayelsa in 2005, when the governor, Diepreye Alamieyeseigha, was apprehended by the London Metropolitan Police at Heathrow Airport with suitcases filled with state money.

(Tragicomically, Alamieyeseigha skipped bail and returned to Nigeria allegedly by disguising himself as a woman.)

At that time, Obasanjo was using Nigeria's anti-corruption authorities to prosecute governors who crossed him, or crossed whatever line he inserted between the permissible and non-permissible theft of public funds. Jonathan stepped in as governor when Alamieyeseigha became the target of one such prosecution. It was also fortuitous for Jonathan to be elevated to the vice presidency - Obasanjo orchestrated his selection as Yar'Adua's running mate in the 2007 election.

In the early hours of February 24, 2010, Yar'Adua was hurriedly flown back to Nigeria by air ambulance. Six of his cabinet ministers had arrived in Saudi Arabia earlier that day, ostensibly to thank the Saudi government for looking after him but really - as the third high-level Nigerian delegation to visit that country during the crisis - in the hopes of seeing their ailing president. Jonathan was kept in the dark about Yar'Adua's precipitous return, which involved the alarming deployment of a military brigade in Abuja.

For almost two days, Nigerians experienced renewed uncertainty, especially since the first public statement by Yar'Adua's spokesman referred to Jonathan as vice, not acting, president. It seemed as if a fierce struggle over presidential authority would erupt. American and British diplomats quickly released strong cautionary statements.
Another announcement on behalf of the still unseen president, on February 26, acknowledged Jonathan as acting president and declared that all government officials should report to him. That communication lessened but did not completely disperse the constitutional cloud over Nigeria's federal institutions. It did, however, reduce the political tensions and anxiety.

Nigeria's season of uncertainty is likely to persist for some time.

End excerpt from Nigeria: Season of Uncertainty
Read the complete analysis at

The authors make it sound like quite a few shenanigans were going on in the background while Nigeria’s former president was struggling with a debilitating illness, especially the statement about “a cabal” of people attempting to manipulate the political and economic power in this nation of 150 million plus people. What was equally surprising in this article and the one that I reference below is that this was being orchestrated by President Yar’Adua’s closest political advisors and his grieving wife and widow, the (former) First Lady of Nigeria Turai Yar’Adua. Yikes!!

To help qualify some of the claims made by Richard Joseph and Alexandra Gillies in their article “Nigeria: Season of Uncertainty” I recommend reading statements attributed to one of Nigeria’s most prominent and outspoken defenders of human rights and free expression, Professor Wole Soyinka, in an article published to the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard on April 7th (cross-published at

Nigeria: Soyinka Urges Country to Save Yar’Adua from Turai
By Michael Eboh – April 7, 2010

Nobel laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, has called for urgent measures by Nigerians to save ailing president Umaru Yar'Adua from some unscrupulous and selfish individuals, benefiting from his predicament. He noted that Yar'Adua's predicament has revealed that he is a victim of spousal abuse.

Speaking at the Nigerian Economic Summit Group's, NESG, Post-Annual General Meeting Lecture, in Lagos, Tuesday, with the theme, "Leadership and Followership as Shared Responsibility," Soyinka exonerated Yar'Adua from all the crises and controversies surrounding his health.

According to him, his meetings with Yar'Adua in the past revealed that he (Yar'Adua) is not capable of treating the country with disdain as is currently being presented through the various controversies surronding his health and visit of certain groups to him.

He said, "From my meetings with Yar'Adua, I see him as someone who is not capable of treating this country with contempt. His predicament is being worsened by the so-called cabal.

"The conduct of the people surrounding the president has turned the country into the laughing stock of the entire globe. Even the papers are having a field day on the issue of Nigeria's phantom president.

"Yar'Adua is surrounded by people who are insensitive about the plight of the Nigerian people. These people holding him hostage are unscrupulous insensitive and heartless.

"It is not the Nigerian people who prevented even Yar'Adua's own mother from seeing him, it is this cabal. They are flesh and blood but they have a lion's heart or so."If his situation takes a turn for the better, which everyone hopes for, it does not make any difference, whatsoever, to what has happened already. It does not take away from the fact that refusing his mother access to him, has made him a victim of spousal abuse.

End excerpt from the Nigerian Vanguard article___

Rest in Peace President Umara Yar’Adua, you certainly gave it your best and despite your ill health and the unscrupulous behavior of some of your closet advisors during your absence, your efforts to lead Nigeria in a fair and just manner were appreciated by many people around the globe. The new Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan will certainly have his hands full in Abuja for the next 11 months as the country prepares for the general election of 2011. Good Luck President Jonathan and good luck to the people of Nigeria as you progress down the long road of democratic change, responsible and effective governance, and improvements in the lives for all of the people of this vast West African nation.

Related news articles, editorials, blog posts, and other resources

Grandiose Parlor
Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s ailing president dies – 05 May 2010

African Loft
Nigeria: “My regime was better than now” – Babangida – 20 Apr 2010
Former Nigerian military leader, General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida (IBB), gives an interview to the BBC News Hausa Service regarding his presidential ambitions

Black Looks
The man died - R.I.P. Yar'Adua by Sokari Ekine – 06 May 2010

Global Voices
Nigeria: Bloggers mourn death of president Yar’Adua by Ndesano Macha – 06 May 2010
Categories and Topics: Nigeria
The Republic of Niger ain’t sexy enough for headlines by Ndesanjo Macho
Niger is not Nigeria in case you didn’t know, although Nigeriens and Nigerians are first cousins.
Nigeria: Soyinka Urges Country to Save Yar'Adua From Turai (Vanguard) – 07 Apr 2010
Nigeria: Visit Yar'Adua Now, Soyinka Tells Jonathan (Daily Champion) – 01 May 2010
Nigeria: Amnesty - Yar'Adua's Major Legacy (Vanguard) – 06 May 2010
Jonathan Takes Oath of Office as President (Vanguard)– 06 May 2010
Season of Uncertainty by Richard Joseph and Alexandria Gillies (Current History Magazine) – 29 Apr 2010

Reuters Africa
New Nigerian leader pledges electoral reform by Randy Fabi and Felix Onuah – 06 May 2010

BBC World News
Nigerians lobby to be Jonathan's vice-president – 07 May 2010
Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan sworn in as president – 06 May 2010
Nigerian President Yar'Adua dies after long illness by Martin Plaut – 06 May 2010
Obituary: President Yar'Adua of Nigeria – 06 May 2010

CNN International
Introducing Nigeria's new president: Goodluck Jonathan - 06 May 2010
Nigeria swears in acting president – 06 May 2010

CNNI Programs: Amanpour
Nigerian Acting President gives first interview to CNN – 14 Apr 2010
Host Christiane Amanpour interviews Nigeria’s newly sworn-in president Goodluck Jonathan during his visit to the U.S. for Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit 2010

The New York Times
Nigeria Swears In New Leader, Burying Predecessor - 06 May 2010
President of Nigeria Dies After Long Illness by Adam Nossiter – 05 May 2010

TIME Magazine
Umaru Musa Yar'Adua: Remembering Nigeria's Patient President by Alex Perry – 06 May 2010
Is Goodluck Jonathan the Answer to Nigeria's Woes? by Gilbert da Costa – 13 Feb 2010
The Violence in Nigeria: What's Behind the Conflict? by Meg Handley – 10 Mar 2010
The Two Sides of Lagos - Photo Essays - TIME
TIME photographer Thomas Dworzak explores the cultural divide in the Nigerian mega-city and financial capital

Foreign Policy Magazine, FP Passport Blog
Nigeria's government of ambiguity ends by Joshua Keating – 06 May 2010
Is Nigeria's president still alive? By Elizabeth Dickinson – 07 Jan 2010
The Real Tragedy in Nigeria's Violence by Jean Herskovits – 03 Aug 2009
A Violent Window of Opportunity by Mark L. Schneider and Nnamdi Obasi – 17 Jul 2009
OIL – The Long Goodbye - An FP Magazine special report – Sep/Oct 2009 issue

YaleGlobal Online Magazine
In Nigeria, Oil Wealth Delivers Grief by Salil Tripathi – 10 Jun 2008
The Rising and Falling Power of Hydrocarbon States by Dilip Hiro – 03 Jul 2007

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