By Gbemisola Olujobi
Nigerians may have accepted their flawed elections as the price to pay for a peaceful change of government from one elected leader to another—the first in the nation’s history. Still, citizens and friends of the most populous country in Africa cannot help wondering if it is indeed a new dawn ... or a new brand of sit-tight leadership.
With the swearing in of Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as Nigeria’s 13th president on May 29, the dust may have settled on what has been described as “the worst election ever conducted in a nation renowned for its primitive polls.” Still, the occasion was auspicious. It was the first time that one civilian leader was handing over government to another civilian leader in Nigeria’s troubled history.
Roundly condemned by voters, monitors and observers as “not credible,” the elections that brought in the new government can best be illustrated with the experience of Donaman Atezan, a 25-year-old student from Gboko, Benue State, one of Nigeria’s 36 states.
“As I got to the ballot box with the two ballot papers to cast my vote, two rugged-looking guys suddenly stood beside me, anxiously watching to see who I was voting for ... even though the election was said to be a secret ballot.
“I had voted for an opposition party and immediately the two big guys seized it and said I shouldn’t cast my vote.
“One of them removed my ballot paper, which was already thumbprinted and just made a bigger print in the space for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, thus rendering my ballot invalid.
“Out of fear and intimidation, I asked them which party presidential candidate I should vote for.
“The other guy said: ‘Vote the PDP. Don’t you want to eat?’ ”
“So was I forced to cast my vote for the PDP against my wish, to escape their wrath.”
The new president, a man known for his humility, did not waste time or words to acknowledge that the elections that brought him to power were seriously flawed. Indeed, the first issue he mentioned in his conciliatory inaugural speech was the election.
“We acknowledge that our elections had some shortcomings. Thankfully, we have well-established legal avenues of redress, and I urge anyone aggrieved to pursue them,” he offered.
“I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Accordingly, I will set up a panel to examine the entire electoral process with a view to ensuring that we raise the quality and standard of our general elections, and thereby deepen our democracy.”
Yar’Adua had also agreed at an earlier forum, a meeting with the American assistant secretary of state for Africa, Ms. Jendayi Fraser, that Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC, was anything but independent.
“We all agree in Nigeria that democracy must take firm root, and I will do everything to reform the electoral process. We will make the funding of the electoral body a first charge on the Consolidated Revenue Fund, in order to ensure the independence of INEC,” he had promised.
He was, however, quick to sell his “victory” to Nigerians as the best option for making the best of a bad situation.
“This is a historic day for our nation, for it marks an important milestone in our march towards a maturing democracy,” he said.
“For the first time since we cast off the shackles of colonialism almost a half-century ago, we have at last managed an orderly transition from one elected government to another.”
He begged Nigerians to give him a chance to prove himself, promising to be a new kind of leader. “I will set a worthy personal example as your president. ... To that end, I offer myself [as] a servant-leader. I will be a listener and doer, and serve with humility.”
Despite his flawed ascent to power, Yar’Adua is not without endearing qualities. He is the first university graduate to hold power in Nigeria, a country which boasts a legion of universities. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and chemistry and a master’s in analytical chemistry from Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, one of Nigeria’s foremost universities.
While studying for his master’s degree, Yar’Adua began a career as a science teacher. He lectured at the Katsina College of Arts, Science and Technology and Katsina Polytechnic until 1983, when he left to work in the private sector.
The new vice president, Jonathan Goodluck, is also a science graduate, leading many to describe the new government as a “government of scientists.” Goodluck holds a master’s degree in hydro and fisheries biology and a doctorate in zoology. He was also a science lecturer, in the biology department of the Rivers State College of Education in Port Harcourt. Before then, he was the Rivers State inspector of education for science. Like Yar’Adua, Goodluck is a former governor, of Bayelsa, a southern state. Yar’Adua was governor of Katsina, a northern state.
The best of Yar’Adua’s attributes, however, is his unblemished record. He is one of the few former governors who is not under investigation by Nigeria’s Financial and Economic Crimes Commission, EFCC. A number of former governors were not around for handing-over ceremonies with their successors on May 29. They are reported to have fled the country for fear they would be picked up by the EFCC for corruption once they shed their official immunity by leaving office.
Yar’Adua is the only governor who publicly declared his assets before and after office.
Even his critics attest to his humility and lack of airs, a rarity among Nigeria’s stuffy ruling class. He is said to be modest almost to the point of embarrassment. Reclusive to a fault, Yar’Adua was practically an unknown face when he emerged from Katsina State government house to pick up his party’s presidential ticket in the last elections. He was neither mover nor shaker in Nigeria’s turbulent political landscape, and was even criticized for his lack of political stature and influence outside his home state of Katsina. But this may indeed prove to be a plus, as he is without the political backlog and liabilities of his archrivals in the elections— Mohammadu Buhari, a former military ruler and Abubakar Atiku, the erstwhile vice president.
Yar’Adua’s pedigree is also impressive. Born to an aristocratic Fulani family, his father, a first republic minister, was the Mutawallen (custodian of the treasury) of the Katsina Emirate of northern Nigeria. His elder brother, the late Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, was an army general and served in Olusegun Obasanjo’s cabinet in the 1970s when Obasanjo was the country’s military head of state. Obasanjo, the man Yar’Adua now replaces, was then elected president in 1999.
The elder Yar’Adua was framed for coup-plotting, along with his former boss (Obasanjo) by Nigeria’s then-maximum ruler, Gen. Sanni Abacha. Both men got life sentences that were later commuted to 15 years. While the elder Yar’Adua died in prison in legendary “questionable circumstances,” Obasanjo emerged from prison, after the maximum ruler died from what the grapevine insists was a Viagra-induced heart attack, to contest and win Nigeria’s presidential elections. Many in Nigeria’s political circles therefore see Obasanjo’s fixation on the younger Yar’Adua as his way of paying back his dead “buddy.”
It will, however, be comforting if Obasanjo’s insistence on anointing Umaru Musa Yar’Adua as his successor proves not to have more sinister motives. The widespread belief in Nigeria is that the new president is merely a tool in Obasanjo’s bid to extend his tenure through the back door, after his efforts to do it in a legitimate manner were rebuffed at home and abroad.
Obasanjo had been sending out signals that he wanted to seek a third term in 2007, but the Nigerian Senate last year rejected a constitutional amendment that would have allowed him to run again. It was an acrimonious issue that threatened Nigeria’s fragile democracy and her even more fragile unity.
Even though Obasanjo had not come out openly to state his intentions, a gaggle of “regime continuity” advocates ensured that the matter was on the front burner of Nigeria’s political discussions.
Obasanjo had also let slip in an April 2006 interview with The Washington Post that “a third term would allow him to complete initiatives he started in his previous seven years in office.”
“The reforms that we are putting in place have to be anchored, anchored in legislation, anchored in institutions,” he had explained in the interview.
There was a widespread outcry against the third term bid across Nigeria and from the international community. A personal letter was dispatched by President George W. Bush and delivered by Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, advising President Obasanjo to stop further attempts to seek a third term. There was also unveiled disapproval from the G-8 and the European Union. An ominous warning also came from the then secretary-general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan. “We need to play by the rules,” Annan had said. “We should not tamper with the constitution to perpetuate our rule.”
Militants in the oil-rich Niger Delta also warned of dire consequences if Obasanjo stayed on. Senior U.S. officials warned of major turmoil and conflict if his bid for a third term succeeded. But none of this deterred the third-term agenda. It was thwarted only when the Nigerian Senate dismissed a bill that proposed to amend the constitution to allow a third term.
It was therefore a skeptical and cynical Nigeria that watched Obasanjo anointing Yar’Adua as his successor in a series of political maneuvers: ramming him down the throat of the ruling People’s Democratic Party in controversial party primaries and ultimately foisting him on the electorate in what has been described as Nigeria’s most flawed elections.
Rehashing Nigeria’s electoral troubles here would make this exercise unnecessarily lengthy. It is instructive enough that merely days before the inauguration ceremony, the European Union Parliament urged the EU to withhold all financial aid to the country until fresh elections are held. In adopting the resolution, the parliament noted the report of EU observers on the April elections, who alleged widespread rigging in favor of the PDP.
According to the British Broadcasting Corporation, the EU believes that the elections fell short of basic standards and cannot be considered credible, free and fair. The chief EU observer, Max van den Berg, said that the polls had “fallen far short” of basic international standards. “The elections have not lived up to the hopes and expectations of the Nigerian people, for the process cannot be considered to be credible,” he said.
Nobel laureates from across the world also joined the ranks of critics of the elections. They called for new polls within 18 months. A statement issued by the New York-based Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, and signed by 48 of the Nobel Prize winners, observed that “the new government expected to be headed by Umaru Musa Yar’Adua might lack legitimacy, a phenomenon that might encourage violent conflict with serious consequences for Nigeria and the entire region.” Among the Nobel laureates who signed the statement was Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka.
On the home front, the Transition Monitoring Group, an independent election monitoring group claiming 50,000 Nigerian observers, also called for the election to be annulled, saying voting hadn’t been held in many of the country’s 36 states and had started very late in many others.
The Nigeria Labor Congress, an umbrella body of workers’ unions, called for a sit-at-home strike on May 28 and 29, the date of the handing-over ceremonies. The Nigerian Bar Association also asked lawyers to boycott court duties for a day to protest the result of the elections, which it said were “characterized by fraud and irregularities.”
Predictably, Yar’Adua’s main opponents in the elections, Maj. Gen. Muhammadu Buhari of the All Nigeria Peoples Party and Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the Action Congress are not happy with the results.
In protest, Atiku Abubakar shunned the handing-over ceremonies, at which he should have been a key player as outgoing vice president.
“I regret that I will not be present at Eagle Square on May 29 to participate in the handover ceremony. I shall not dignify such a hollow ritual with my presence. Like many Nigerians, I will sit at home and meditate over what has befallen our nation and pray that God will disperse these dark clouds gathering over our beloved country,” he said.
Abubakar is, however, not just sitting at home and meditating. He has put together a formidable legal team to challenge the results of the presidential election in the election tribunal.
Mohammadu Buhari also shares Abubakar’s anger and determination to challenge Yar’Adua’s “landslide.” But he is a more experienced challenger of electoral victories in Nigeria. He contested the presidency against Obasanjo in the 2003 elections and lost.
Says Buhari: “I and our party are putting our facts together to go to the court. But we were in court for 30 months over the 2003 elections. The 2007 election is not different from the 2003 one. It is just that worse things happened in 2007, where we witnessed bastardization of the electoral process and humiliation of Nigerians at the polls.”
If history is any guide, these legal challenges will not come to much. Indeed, the attempts of the two opposition candidates to challenge Yar’Adua’s victory at the Election Tribunal has already suffered a setback. The Court of Appeal rejected their applications seeking to direct the Independent National Electoral Commission to permit them to inspect and copy the electoral materials used for the presidential election.
To further take the wind out of the sails of these agitations, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has declared his country’s readiness to work with the new administration in Nigeria, saying he looked forward to “an early meeting” with the new president, “to begin our discussion on future cooperation.”
A press statement quoted Blair as saying Britain was “keen to work with the new administration on reform and governance, democracy, development and other areas of cooperation which we have developed over the last eight years.” Nigeria was a British colony until 1960.
The U.S. government also made its position known through Linda Thomas-Greenfield, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. The story from Washington is that the United States views Nigeria as a very important and strategic partner and will continue to work with the country in spite of the fact that the recent elections fell short of expectations.
Thomas-Greenfield said the U.S. government was committed to working with Nigeria to improve the electoral process so “we don’t go through such heart-wrenching disappointment again. The future of our bilateral relationship is strong.”
Despite wide calls for a new election, Yar’Adua took the oath of office on May 29 at Eagle Square in Abuja, the nation’s capital. Police checkpoints were mounted as far as 44 kilometers away and invitees were frisked for weapons before they were allowed into the venue of the ceremonies. Cars were screened for bombs and explosives.
“The challenge is great. The goal is clear. The time is now,” the incoming president said in his inaugural speech.
Among the challenges he laid out was Nigeria’s unsteady economy. “Our economy already has been set on the path of growth. Now we must continue to do the necessary work to create more jobs, lower interest rates, reduce inflation and maintain a stable exchange rate. All this will increase our chances for rapid growth and development.”
Yar’Adua also promised to rebuild basic infrastructure and dramatically improve power generation, transmission and distribution, as well as mass transportation, especially railroad development.
His government, he said, will also fight poverty and disease. “We will make advances in public health, to control the scourge of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases that hold back our population and limit our progress.”
The Niger Delta crisis was also at the top of the agenda. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that Nigeria has lost $16 billion in revenue to the crisis since December 2005.
“The crisis in the Niger Delta commands our urgent attention,” Yar’Adua said. “Ending it is a matter of strategic importance to our country. I will use every resource available to me, with your help, to address this crisis in a spirit of fairness, justice, and cooperation.”
If these promises were music to the ears of Nigerians, they peaked on a rather worrisome note. “We have a good starting point because our predecessor already launched a master plan that can serve as a basis for a comprehensive examination of all the issues,” said the new president.
That predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, has been Yar’Adua’s political albatross all along. Nigerians fear that the nation is in for a replay of the biblical “Jacob’s voice but Esau’s hand.” Watchers of Nigeria’s politics and governance say Obasanjo chose the soft-spoken Yar’Adua as his successor as “Plan Two” of his sit-tight agenda. They say his game plan is to continue running the government in the background while touting Yar’Adua as the man-in-charge.
Rumors abound that Yar’Adua is in frail health. He had to be airlifted to Germany for urgent medical attention during his campaign. The talk is of a kidney ailment requiring weekly dialysis. Critics say a man in such delicate health cannot run an unruly republic of 250 ethnic and sub-ethnic groups, with as many differences and complexities, made even more complex by simmering religious and ethnic animosities. Then there are the demands of Nigeria’s leadership role in West Africa and strategic importance in Africa.
Insinuations are that Obasanjo deliberately installed a successor who would be too sick to run the country so that he could continue to rule after ostensibly handing over power. An extreme version of this rumor is that Yar’Adua is terminally ill, and will not make it past his first year in office. A thoroughly inexperienced vice president, Jonathan Goodluck, wound totally around Obasanjo’s little finger, would then replace him.
Yar’Adua, however, denies these rumors of frail health and impending death. “There have been speculations since 2000 surrounding my health. I am only human. I don’t think a human being has control over his health or ill health, life or death,” he said.
He also challenged his critics to a game of squash to prove that he is in robust health. “I invite them to a game of squash. If they can play 12 straight sets with me, they are welcome.” No one is known to have accepted his invitation. His denials were, however, not helped by a persistent cough that interrupted his speech throughout his campaign.
Obasanjo himself did not do much to dispel rumors that he had a high stake in the election victory of his protégé. Yar’Adua’s campaign was personally handled by President Obasanjo through a special council established by the PDP. With the power of the incumbency behind him, Yar’Adua was headed for a landslide at the polls.
After Yar’Adua’s predictable victory, outgoing President Obasanjo was named chairman of the Board of Trustees of the ruling PDP. The new party chairman promised that “we will ensure that it will be a party of policy and the government will be a government of programs to implement the policies of the party.”
The implication of that statement is that the government will be run by the chairman of the “party of policy”— Obasanjo—since “the government will be a government of programs to implement the policies of the party.”
What more? The PDP has made it clear that disloyalty to the party will not be tolerated in the new dispensation. This means that party loyalty will come before loyalty to the nation. “You cannot be loyal to the nation if you are not loyal to the party that brought you to power,’’ Obasanjo said in Abuja at the opening of a policy retreat for PDP candidates who were elected in April.
Rumors are that PDP candidates were made to sign “a bond of allegiance to the party.” And with Obasanjo as party leader, all party members, including the president, as well as members of the national and state assemblies, will have to take directives from Obasanjo.
Yar’Adua himself has indicated several times since his election that his government will be a continuation of the Obasanjo years. He told a meeting of international investors in Abuja that his government would continue with the policies of the Obasanjo regime. He was quoted as saying, ” ... The policies, focus and directions of government will continue with the same determination.”
More than a few eyebrows were raised when Yar’Adua reappointed two key aides of his predecessor, Abdullahi Mohammed and Abdullahi Sarki Muktar, both retired generals, as chief of staff and national security adviser, respectively. Both men had served Obasanjo in the same capacities. Many members of Obasanjo’s government are also said to be sitting pretty in Aso Rock, expecting to keep their old positions or, at worst, be assigned new portfolios.
Some of Obasanjo’s actions in the final days of his administration also leave Nigerians wondering if there really was a change of government on May 29. The outgoing president hiked fuel prices by 15 percent, doubled the value-added tax and sold off two oil refineries. He also reshuffled army top brass and nominated National Assembly leaders—all in preparation to hand over to a new government!
Sound bites from the corridors of power are also not very encouraging. “Yar’Adua is under considerable pressure to assert his authority ... and not allow himself to be dictated to. ... Despite the pressure ... he is unlikely to bite the hand that fed him,” says erstwhile minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Nasir El-Rufai, an influential member of Obasanjo’s government who is also expected to carry over into Yar’Adua’s government.
There are, however, hopes across the land that Yar’Adua’s well-known modesty and humility will guide him to do what is right. But there are also well-founded fears. Will Yar’Adua do what is right if it amounts to “biting the hand that fed him?” Has Obasanjo finally showed other African leaders the “decent way” to sit tight? Time will surely tell.
A journalist since 1984, Olujobi is the Pulitzer Fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California. She can be reached at email@example.com
Nigerian: Forced to vote against my wish (BBC News, April 23, 2007)
Sola Odunfa: Obasanjo’s legacy to Nigeria (BBC News, March 16, 2007)
Tom Asby: Yar’Adua takes helm of crisis-ridden Nigeria (Reuters, May 29, 2007)
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton: Yar’Adua inauguration marks key point for Nigeria (NPR, June 2, 2007)
Tope Adeboboye: World Nobel laureates reject outcome of April elections (Online Nigeria Daily News, May 23, 2007)
EU Parliament wants aid to Nigeria dropped until fresh polls (All That Matters, May 25, 2007)
Craig Timberg: Bid to Allow Nigerian a Third Term Hits Snag (Washington Post, May 13, 2006)
AP Photo / George Osodi
Everything old is new again? Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua (center) celebrates his primary win in December 2006, flanked by former President Olusegun Obasango (left) and PDP Chairman Ahmadu Ali.