African business, politics and lifestyle
Ill health hung over Yar’Adua presidency from start
By Estelle Shirbon
No sooner was Umaru Yar’Adua named in late 2006 as the Nigerian ruling party’s presidential candidate than people started asking whether he would survive four years at the helm of Africa’s most populous nation.
The answer to that question came on Wednesday night, when Yar’Adua died a year before the end of his term — a sad end for a quiet man who had been in poor health since well before he was catapulted into one of the world’s toughest jobs.
I was a Reuters correspondent in Nigeria at the time and I remember the bewilderment when rumours surfaced that outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo had selected the frail governor of Katsina, a backwater northern state, as his successor.
To find out more about this little-known figure, I travelled to Katsina in January 2007 to examine his record.
It is an arid state where most people live in shocking poverty and mortality rates for infants and mothers are among the worst in the world. I headed to the general hospital in the state capital to see what was being done to tackle these issues.
The hospital was no better or worse than many others in Ngeria. It was crowded and disorganised, with power cuts, little medical equipment available, too few beds, a dearth of medication, and wards that looked in need of a good clean.
What it did have, however, was a brand new dialysis unit. Unlike other parts of the hospital, this was spotless, powered by a functioning electric generator, and air-conditioned. It had several dialysis machines and not a single patient.
This hardly seemed like a good use of resources in a place with such gigantic needs in basic healthcare. Staff refused to answer my questions about the unit, but later I interviewed a group of independent health workers, who scoffed.
“Don’t you know the governor has a kidney condition?” one said.
Like so many things in Nigeria, the truth about that dialysis unit could not be established with any certainty. But what did become clear as Yar’Adua appeared in public during the campaign was that his health was going to be a major issue.
He was in his mid-50s then but walked and spoke like a much older man. He always sounded out-of-breath and was afflicted by a persistent cough. He had pale blotches all over his face.
When I interviewed him just after his election, I asked him about his health. He gave me the same answer he gave everybody else: he was “satisfied” with his health and anyway, anyone could die anytime, could they not? Allah would decide.
A few months later, I was invited to lunch with him at the presidential villa. As he picked at his food without much appetite, I noticed that he had a strange square lump on the back of his left hand, covered by a dark skin-coloured patch.
Could this have been an access point for medical treatment? I’m no doctor, and I thought it rude to ask. I left the lunch none the wiser about how Yar’Adua really was.
Three years later, it remains a mystery to me why this shy, gentle man who was so obviously in fragile health was thrown into the bear pit that is the Nigerian presidency.
There are many theories about why Obasanjo chose him, but the reality is that the process was totally opaque and Nigerians have never been told in clear language what informed the choice.
As for the 2007 election itself, it was a shambles denounced by international observers as not credible. I covered it in the Niger Delta, the oil heartland in southern Nigeria, and what I saw there was fraud, intimidation, chaos and violence.
It seems to me that neither Nigerians nor perhaps Yar’Adua himself were well served by the machinations that thrust him into the presidency. Until Nigeria’s self-serving political class accept fairer, more transparent ways of selecting the nation’s leaders, it’s hard to see Nigeria striding forward.
Unfortunately, the fierce power struggle that has already taken shape to succeed Yar’Adua does not bode well for when Nigerians vote again presidential elections next year.