x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua: a gentleman leader plagued by illness

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the president of Nigeria, came to power after controversial elections in 2007 and was said to be little more than the puppet of his predecessor.

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua, the president of Nigeria, came to power after controversial elections in 2007 and was said to be little more than the puppet of his predecessor and champion, the outgoing Olusegun Obasanjo. He spent so much of his term in office outside the country seeking medical treatment that he was rumoured to have died weeks ago. Though the nature of his elevation to power was flawed, Yar'Adua was notable for being the first civilian to win the presidency from another civilian in a nation historically hindered by military coups.

He began his presidency with an enthusiasm that extended to his open declaration of his personal assets. But this soon waned as he failed to counter the endemic corruption in the African country. A former chemistry professor, he was born into one of Nigeria's best-known political and Muslim families in Katsina, northern Nigeria, in 1951. His father became a minister for Lagos during the First Republic, soon after Nigeria gained independence, and held the royal title of Mutawalli (custodian of the treasury) of the Katsina Emirate, a title that Yar'Adua inherited.

His brother, General Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, was Obasanjo's deputy when he was Nigeria's military ruler between 1976 and 1979. As a young man, he attended government college before studying at Barewa college, in Kaduna, the north's most prestigious school. He graduated in education and chemistry in 1975 from Ahmadu Bello University and received a master's in analytical chemistry five years later. He pursued a career as a lecturer in 1983 before committing himself to farming. Politics had aroused his interest in the interim, attracting him to the radical People's Redemption Party in Nigeria's Second Republic.

Yar'Adua's own first foray into politics ended in failure when the governorship of Katsina went to his rival, Saidu Barba in 1991. But he emerged from the campaign with dignity, perceived as a man with a human touch. Eight years later he contested the governorship again, and won. He served as Katsina's governor for eight years from 1999, and later emerged as the consensus choice among the ruling People's Democratic Party, run by the then-president Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator.

When the government refused to allow Obasanjo to remain for a third term, he was reported to have manipulated other state governors to withdraw from the presidential race and support his man, Yar'Adua. On assuming office the new president tried to bring the insurgency in Nigeria's oil-producing Niger Delta under control. Members of the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (Mend) had wreaked havoc on the petroleum infrastructure by attacking oil installations and kidnapping employees with the aim of reducing the poverty of people in the Delta by redistributing the oil wealth. Angola capitalised on Nigeria's failure, becoming Africa's premier oil exporter.

Earlier this year, Yar'Adua initiated formal peace talks with Mend, meeting Henry Okah, its longtime leader. In part, he was successful: more than 8,000 militants agreed to surrender their arms as a part of a government-led three-month amnesty programme. Hailed as a "gentleman" for his mild-mannered approach, high terms of praise in Nigeria, he was also saddled with the less complimentary moniker "Baba-go-slow", midway through his first term in office: Obasanjo had been known as "Baba" in reference to his fatherly style of governance.

Plagued by ill health, which saw him take protracted leaves of absence for treatment in Germany and Saudi Arabia for his chronic kidney ailments, he was forced eventually to transfer his powers to the vice president Goodluck Jonathan, who was sworn in as president on Yar'Adua's death on Wednesday. Meanwhile, as their president travelled abroad for care, the people of Nigeria continued to suffer basic medical care in the country's poorly-run hospitals and medical centres.

Though he was a conscientious president, Yar'Adua failed to alter the complexion of Nigeria's government, and lost popular support for failing to reverse the shortage of electricity and gasoline in Nigeria's major cities. Yar'Adua was born on August 19, 1951 and died on May 5. He is survived by two wives (one of whom he divorced in 1997) and nine children. * The National