Politics of Yar’adua’s Health Roils Nigeria

Abuja. Dec 14: Monday, 14th December 2009 would be counted as Day 21 since Nigeria’s President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left his office in Abuja for a hospital in Saudi Arabia. And for those three weeks Nigeria had been a boiling caldron of feisty debates over… over what really? The media has made it appear the matter is all about the health of Mr. President. Every new day brings with it new tales about

the ebb and swell (but mostly ebb) of life in and out of the most famous hospital patient in the entire Arabian Peninsula, thanks to relentless global attention the media have  focused on Yar’adua’s health.  

Unlike the other times Yar’Adua had gone abroad for medical checkups, his media handlers actually told Nigerians that their President was sick with “pericarditis”, an inflammation of some tissues bordering the heart, and had travelled to Saudi Arabia, not for the Pilgrimage but for check up and treatment. Many have blamed the Presidential Media Office for exacerbating the crisis by failing to give a daily update of the President’s hospital routine and response to treatment. Yet, such people may have forgotten that just a day after Yar’adua’s departure, the rumour that zipped across the nation and even beyond, was Yar’adua’s rumoured death.  

Like most rumours, it had no known source. And it was predicated on no known incident. The more government officials tried to stem the rumour, the more it spread, borne on the wings of the internet and telephone text messages. Some persons embraced the habit of hourly search of the internet for news of Yar’adua’s health by keying in just two words “Yar’adua’s death” – two ominous words that somehow became ordinary in Nigeria within the past three weeks. And out would pop details of past and present rumours of his death and ill-health from the BBC, CNN, VOA, and yes, The Nation of Kenya, whose news about the man’s dire condition was widely quoted in Nigerian papers. But like most other reports, even The Nation’s story was based on just an un-named source. 

Show politicians a mole hill and they would swear it is not only a mountain but could be higher than the Kilimanjaro too. And as Nigerian politicians are no different from the rest politicians everywhere, members of the opposition parties sounded the alarm that a full-fledged constitutional crisis had enveloped the nation. Part of the calamity they mentioned is that the Chief Justice of Nigeria as well as the Head of the Court of Appeal would become vacant at the end of December, and there would be a lacuna if the President is not back by then to make the new appointments. They also say that there are certain documents awaiting his signature; such as supplementary appropriation bill newly minted by the National Assembly and the National Honours Award list. Left unsaid is the fact that any lorry-load of documents could be air-freighted to the hospital for Yar’adua’s signature – if need be.  

Also, left mainly unsaid is the other fact that the real reason for the debate is the fact that Yar’Adua did not constitutionally handover power, through a written proclamation to the Nigerian Senate that he was travelling and that the Vice President would act for him in his absence. Many have interpreted this to mean that there is a feud between Nigeria’s Numbers One and Two citizens. Once this was pointed out, other agitations surfaced; Vice President Goodluck Jonathan’s supporters (mainly from his Ijaw ethnic group whose abode hugs almost the entire Nigerian Atlantic ocean shore) vowed to secede if their son is not allowed to step into Yar’adua’s shoes if..if..if the sick man died. Some of Yar’adua’s fellow Northerners countered that another Northerner would have to step into Yar’adua’s office to complete this Presidency turn of the North (as though former President Olusegun Obasanjo held power on behalf of the South. Totally unsaid was how another Northerner would become President in the event of Yar’adua’s death – as the constitutional provision is that a Vice President would automatically succeed a dead President. Deferent scenarios began to emerge in the news media, so too news of assorted plots – mostly wild and unfounded.  New power blocs were reportedly being formed as news media were awash with power games.  

Yet, last weekend, indications emerged that Yar’Adua could be home and in his office within the week or two weeks at the most. But would his return make the uproar of the past three weeks a storm in a tea cup – inconsequential? No, the uproar, driven by the opposition, has seemingly damaged Yar’adua’s much-debated second term bid. Though he had never said whether he would re-contest for the Presidency, the debate whether he was healthy enough for another term or not has been on for as long as his presidency which incepted in May 2009. Now, if the continuing uproar over his health may force the decision on him not to re-contest, the opposition’s campaign of the past three weeks would not have been in vain. 

Truth is that Yar’adua’s latest illness chose a wrong time to strike; last October was Yar’adua’s as no month had been. His efforts at settling the armed belligerence in the Niger Delta succeeded when the militants there accepted Yar’adua’s amnesty and surrendered their arms – the ensuing peace is now into its second month.  Then owing to that peace, Nigeria’s oil exports rebounded by some 40 per cent above the level where Yar’Adua had met it and that means extra revenue for the nation. Not surprisingly, Yar’Adua began talking about fixing Nigeria’s epileptic electricity supply and doubling the generating capacity from 3000 megawatts to 6000 by this December’s end – a goal that now appears impossible owing to inadequate supply of gas to fire the available turbines and generate electricity. 

Right after signing the amnesty, his anti-corruption fight seemed alive as a Deputy National chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), Mr. Bode George, was jailed and yes, Nigeria obtained a non-permanent seat at the UN – a feat Yar’Adua achieved by largely shunning the West. Even as Nigeria’s leading lights in the world of diplomacy begrudged Yar’adua’s non-attendance of the UN General Session last September for a visit to Saudi Arabia, where he accompanied the King to a function at a university, he said not a word. Then the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) gave Nigeria its block support for the UN seat – making the votes of the West unnecessary  as that plus African votes was enough to clinch the seat for Nigeria. It was a diplomatic coup for which Yar’Adua has not been adequately credited even at home. 

Then, just when Yar’Adua who had been derided as “Papa Go Slow” who ran a faster by snail government was widely acknowledged as having moved onto the fast lane, he had to travel to Saudi Arabia for yet another hospital visit. Feelers from the Presidency showed that he may return this week to astound his “Yar’Adua –is- dying” critics, but the rumour mill, driven by the opposition politics, has dealt a serious blow to his re-election plan; that is assuming he ever harboured such.   

By Tony Eluemunor 

Nation’s Correspondent, Abuja.