By Gbemisola Olujobi
Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua returned to the capital of Abuja on Feb. 24 after spending 92 days in Saudi Arabia, where he sought medical treatment for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane surrounding the heart. Since then, there have been no public reports of anyone seeing him or speaking to him, not even the acting president, who was vice president before Yar’Adua took ill.
The critically ill president had left Nigeria last Nov. 23 for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia without transferring power to his deputy or notifying the National Assembly—a constitutional faux pas and an impeachable offense.
The presidency was thus virtually vacant until Feb. 9, when the Senate and House of Representatives empowered the vice president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, with all executive powers to function in the office of the president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, as acting president, until President Yar’Adua recovered from his illness.
Curiously, the president went back home in an air ambulance less than two weeks into Jonathan’s interim presidency; in fact, he arrived on the very day that the acting president sent his first set of executive correspondence to the National Assembly. The Senate acknowledged Jonathan’s move as evidence that he had “started exercising his powers.” A few hours later, his predecessor was back. For a man who had stated clearly in a BBC interview that he would return only when his doctors certified him fit, going home in an air ambulance was not a listed option. So what caused Yar’Adua’s change of heart?
The manner of his homecoming was no less dramatic. Yar’Adua left the Saudi city of Jeddah just as a delegation of Nigerian ministers arrived in Saudi Arabia to ascertain the state of his health and report to the Federal Executive Council. Four such high-powered groups had earlier visited Saudi Arabia and returned to Nigeria without seeing the president or hearing from him.
The delegation is said to have flown directly to Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where the group’s members met with Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, a representative of the Saudi monarch. They expressed “deep appreciation for the excellent and generous attention the government and people of Saudi Arabia have given to the president.”
However, they also expressed the concern of the Nigerian government and people over their inability to reach their president in the three months that he had been in Saudi Arabia. Thus, the letter asked the Saudi government to provide access to Yar’Adua.
Now, what was the interest of the Saudi authorities in keeping Yar’Adua, the president of a sovereign nation, incommunicado and out of his people’s reach for three months? And if the Saudi authorities had nothing to do with the president being out of reach, who kept him away from his officials and his people?
The delegation then proceeded to Jeddah to see the presidential patient, hoping to succeed, where others had failed, in bringing back news about the president’s health to the Nigerian public. But the patient was gone! He was already airborne by the time the group arrived in Jeddah, reportedly on a plane provided by the Saudi monarch.
There is definitely a missing link somewhere. The delegation was in touch with the government of Saudi Arabia before it left Nigeria. Its mission was well known. Its aircraft was cleared for landing after initially being refused landing rights. Strange that it was refused landing rights in the first place. No one hinted that Yar’Adua was indeed about to be discharged from the hospital and taken home—and not in just any plane, but in one provided by the Saudi king.
His return was the mother of all surprises. Neither government officials nor the public had caught any wind of it. The first sign that something significant was happening was the increase in security surveillance at the Abuja airport. Airport staff members were ordered out of the presidential wing while soldiers took strategic positions all over the airport. The arrival and departure halls were cordoned off. Two companies of fully armed soldiers were deployed along the route from the airport to Aso Rock, the presidential villa.
Yar’Adua’s air ambulance taxied at about 1:45 a.m. Immediately, a Ford E-250 intensive care ambulance drove in and parked right beside the aircraft, apparently in a bid to shield the important passenger from the prying eyes of journalists and whoever else may have been watching. Indeed, about 30 minutes prior to his arrival, the airport authorities switched off the airport lights.
The aircraft was parked virtually in the bush, instead of the parking area, even as everywhere was covered in darkness. The ambulance then conveyed the returnee to Aso Rock. Soldiers blocked off the presidential route as the ambulance made its way through the city to the villa.
No one outside a small circle has seen the president since he came in like a thief in the night, and no outsider has heard directly from him. Many Nigerians had hoped he would make a nationwide broadcast, even if he had to do it from bed or on a stretcher, to explain his whereabouts in the last three months and apologize for leaving the nation in limbo. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a visit to Nigeria in February: “… the presidency is more important than the person who occupies it. In a democracy, there is the office of the president and the person who occupies that office is the servant of the people and he is accountable to the people.” That kind of accountability has been patently absent in the matter of Yar’Adua’s illness and its implications for his position as president of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
No one has access to the ailing president apart from his wife, his chief security officer and his aide-de-camp. Rumors have it that even his mother and siblings have been denied access to him. A medical report says the president “is isolated over episodic chest infections” and needs to be protected from opportunistic infections. That is all the news Nigerians have about their 58-year-old president and the state of his health.
Who is hiding the president from the people who gave him their mandate and exactly why? The secrecy in which the president’s illness has been shrouded has sent the rumor mill into overdrive mode. Some say the president’s weight has dropped to about 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds) and that he is still in the sterile ambulance that took him from the airport to the presidential villa because that is the only way he can be accommodated in his rapidly deteriorating state.
Some say he is on a life-support machine. Others say he has been removed from life support and fitted with rechargeable chips to keep his organs functioning. Some say he is being kept in a military facility under heavy guard, far from the prying eyes of those who are anxious to declare him incapacitated and unfit to rule.
One set of rumors even makes the claim that he didn’t come back from Saudi Arabia, and that it was indeed an empty air ambulance that arrived and an empty land ambulance that drove to the presidential villa. These particular rumor-mongers argue that this was the only way of keeping Yar’Adua away from the delegation that was supposed to have assessed his condition and report to the National Assembly. This makes sense, because if the group had found him to be incapacitated, that would have paved the way for his impeachment. They therefore insist that, contrary to the wide assumption that the president is in Aso Rock recuperating, he is actually still in Saudi Arabia, brain-damaged and beyond recovery. No one can freely refute this last rumor because no outsiders apparently saw Yar’Adua coming or being removed from the aircraft or being taken into the ambulance.
Conspiracy theorists have also spun several webs. One theory says Turai, the president’s wife, is betting that her husband’s physical presence in the country will allow her to exercise power on his behalf. She would shield him from everyone and give out directives, purportedly issued by him, to run the affairs of the state.
First lady Turai is said to be uncomfortable with the rising profile of the acting president and the prospect of his being accepted as the de facto president. The plan therefore was to bring back Yar’Adua in whatever shape to act as a check on the acting president and ensure that he does not function effectively.
Another theory has it that the kitchen Cabinet of the ailing president bundled him into the country in a bid to keep the presidency in the north. Indeed, the president’s illness seems to be taking on a dangerous north/south dimension. A group of northern elders have warned that the north will not let go of the presidency. The convention of the ruling party provides that power will rotate between the north and the south. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo is from the south and this should have been the turn of the north. The north is peeved that the infirmity of the president has seen Vice President Jonathan, a southerner, emerge as acting president. A group of northern elders have warned that any attempt to deny the north its right will be counterproductive for the unity of the country.
Another theory is that a planned oil-block grab by members of the kitchen Cabinet forced them to bundle the president back to the country. Jonathan canceled the allocation of 20 oil blocks to the president’s cronies two days after he emerged as acting president. According to this theory, the group wanted to force Jonathan to reverse the cancellation by bringing back Yar’Adua in whatever condition. They believe the mere presence of the president in Aso Rock will send Jonathan scurrying back to his desk to reverse the cancellation. On the other hand, they could have it reversed by Yar’Adua, who would be back, recuperating, issuing orders and doing his job through his aides. A presidential fiat would then restore the allocation of the oil blocks to the presidential cronies.
Two of the president’s daughters are said to be at each other’s throats over which of their governor-husbands should be made vice president to compensate the Yar’Adua family in the event that Jonathan ends up as substantive president. They are married to two of the northern governors.
Even the president’s chair has attracted its own share of the controversy. It is said that the acting president could not preside over the Feb. 22 meeting of the Executive Council because Yar’Adua’s aides told him he could not sit on the president’s chair as the real president was now around. Jonathan had presided over the last two council meetings from the presidential chair. Two of the president’s security aides reportedly stood guard behind the chair on Feb. 22 so that Jonathan could fully understand that the chair was not available for his use. Because he could not decide between forcing himself into the chair or returning to his old chair, Jonathan stayed away from the meeting and sent a representative, who adjourned the meeting.
How many such uncomfortable situations would Jonathan have to avoid, and what would be their cost to the 150 million Nigerians who put their destinies into Yar’Adua’s hands when they elected him president?
According to an official who requested anonymity, the Nigerian nation is in a state of “total political chaos and government paralysis.”
The communal crisis in the Jos area continues to claim lives. Only recently, about 500 people were killed in an attack on Dogo Hanawa village by suspected Fulani herdsmen. The amnesty program, which granted amnesty to Niger Delta militants on the condition that they surrender their arms, is in the throes of failure as a result of the impasse created by the president’s health situation. The militants are becoming restless. Two car bombs exploded at the venue of a post-amnesty conference of Niger Delta governors on March 15. Three people were killed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) claimed responsibility for the bomb blast and said the death toll would have been much higher if the group had detonated a third bomb.
The standard of living of Nigerians continues to decline. Nigeria presently generates 2,400 megawatts of electricity, whereas the nation needs about 20,000 megawatts to meet its power needs. The result is crippling power shortages and untold hardship for the citizenry. Many companies have folded because of the high cost of running their operations on generators. Consequently, unemployment continues to soar. Gasoline is anything but cheap—when it is available. Fuel queues have become the order of the day in a country acknowledged as one of the biggest oil-producing nations in the world.
Nigeria is far from meeting the Millennium Development Goals, and the country’s Human Development Index rating continues to fall. Transparency International ranked Nigeria the 130th (out of 180) most corrupt nation in the world in 2008, down from 121st in 2007. These are all symptoms of a rudderless ship of state.
Yar’Adua does have his good side. He is the only president of Nigeria who has ever declared his assets and made them public as a way of leading by example in the war against corruption. He, however, does not seem to have the constitution to execute his famous seven-point agenda and steer the ship of an unwieldy and multifaceted state such as Nigeria. And since there is no provision for a recuperating president in Nigeria’s constitution, he should do the honorable thing and step aside. But that is assuming he is in a position to do anything by himself. If he is not, as is widely suspected, those around him should assist him to tread the path of honor. His exit from the scene would go a long way in cooling down the bubbling cauldron that Nigeria has become.
AP / George Osodi
Two motorbike riders pass an election billboard with the pictures of then-presidential candidate Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and his running mate, Goodluck Jonathan, in Lagos, Nigeria, in 2007.