Book Review: Last Days of Umaru Yar'Adua, by Ex Aide

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua

The ill-fated presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua represents a historical event without precedent in Nigerian politics.  Plucked from obscurity following Olesegun Obasanjo’s failure to guide an invisible hand to grant him a third term, there were moments in which even Yar’Adua himself looked surprised to find himself in the seat of power.

Even close friends would not be likely to describe the president as cutting a striking figure of leadership, and in fact, that was precisely why he was chosen for the task – by most accounts Obasanjo had planned to carry out “Plan B” after the failure to pass constitutional ammendments, whereby he would continue to rule Nigeria as head of the PDP, using Yar’Adua as a puppet … of course, this didn’t work out as planned.  The one-time Governor of Katsina State seemed perfect for the job, without any outstanding reputation, and yet featuring the prestigious last name of his older brother Major General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, a war hero who bravely challenged the military dictatorship of Sani Abacha.

And yet President Yar’Adua surprised his early critics, and later disappointed many of his converted supporters.  During his inaugural speech, he commented on the poor quality of the elections that placed him in power in what seemed like unusual candor.  He inspired some level of hope by identifying four areas of “national consensus” – deepening democracy and rule of law, encouraging private sector participation in the economy, zero tolerance for corruption, and restructuring government efficiency.

What was most surprising was Yar’Adua success in escaping the over-arching control of Obasanjo over his administration – as his patronage network grew, the president displayed increasing signs of independence, and made several cabinet replacements which were seen as damaging to the former president’s interests.

However this optimism was short-lived.  Many if not most campaign promises soon fell short.  Two refineries that were supposed to be privatized, thereby easing the price of diesel everyone has to use for their electricity generators, were halted.  Promises to restructure state-owned oil company NNPC floundered.  Yar’Adua completely reversed his promises to battle corruption when he fired Nuhu Ribadu from the EFCC on absurd grounds, suspended cases against James Ibori and the 31 corrupt governors, among other high profile cases.

But, the most critical failure of all wasn’t even his fault – his health was in far too poor of a state for the burden of leadership.

The final years of Yar’Adua’s presidency remain shrouded in mystery.  In no other country of similar size and importance has the head of state disappeared from public view for such a long period.  For three full months he convalesced in Saudi Arabia unable to govern, yet a vulturous group of aides surrounded his sickbed to approve critical matters such as budgets and decrees.  By the time Yar’Adua was able to return to the presidency, it was too late – mass protests were organized to oust the so-called “invisible presidency,” and parliament had already passed interim powers to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan.

But so very little is actually known about what happened during the quiet battle of succession, so there is tremendous interest in a new book being released by Yar’Adua’s former aide, Olusegun Adeniyi.  “Power, Politics and Death: A Front-Row Account of Nigeria Under the Late President Yar’Adua,” is the title of Adeniyi’s new book, and is currently making its way around the journalistic community ahead of its release.  The book is not likely to portray the former president in a controversial light, but it may still surprise us for the extend to which the Army worked to conceal the poor health of the president.

“If we will be honest with ourselves, we all know how we rig elections in this country,” Adeniyi quotes Yar’Adua as saying during a closed-door January 2008 meeting about the corrupt election, according to the Associated Press. “We compromise the security agencies, we pay the electoral officials and party agents while on the eve of the election we merely distribute logistics all designed to buy the vote.”

Olusegun Adeniyi

But perhaps the most important confirmation from Adeniyi’s book was that Yar’Adua’s illness had long ago eliminated his capacity to serve in office, yet he was continually prompted to hold onto to power by a close-knit group of advisers who had enriched themselves at the state treasury.  According to the book, when Yar’Adua had “minor surgery” in Germany in 2008, he could only work a few hours a day, if at all, after the procedure.  Adeniyi writes that as the President grew sicker, he began receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia with government officials suspecting that “American security agents had penetrated the (German) hospital and had gained access to the president’s health profile.”  At one point during a trip to Togo, Yar’Adua’s handler had to drape robes over his arm to hide the fact he needed to literally carry the president off the runway as he was too weak to walk on his own strength.

With all due respect to the memory of the president, this image of a weakened and dying man artificially held in a position of leadership against the basic laws of competency of office is yet another reminder that the people crave and deserve a high quality of leadership and a minimum observation of ethics by the aides, advisers, and support teams that accompany these heads of state.

James Kimer, Nigeria Intel