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Yar’Adua: A legacy not limited by death

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Late Umaru Yar’Adua

After the resounding defeat at the National Assembly and the subsequent national repudiation of the infamous Third Term Agenda, President Olusegun Obasanjo who had tried to outfox the entire nation came to terms with reality. It was in 2006, and with the failure to stretch his tenure beyond the constitutionally allowed two terms, a hurried succession plan had to be put in place. The General from Ota must have been banking on calculations that the bid would sail through. However, as reality dawned that Nigerians could not be railroaded to assuage the ambitions of a ruler who appeared bent on installing a life Presidency in the world’s most populous black nation, quick steps had to be taken to find a replacement. Not minding the Third Term misadventure, the aces were still with the General. Since Obasanjo could not keep himself in power, he sought to install a protégé, someone who would most likely be pliant. There was equally the thesis from the Obasanjo camp about the need to put the Presidency in the hands of a capable technocratic leader who would continue the economic reforms and political agenda of the departing President.

By the time the dust settled, the outcome of the search for Obasanjo’s successor was a big surprise in the political space. As the front runners in the race for the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Presidential ticket for the 2007 elections jostled for the big prize, the eventual winner of the prize put a lie to all of the calculations of those who thought they were the favoured gladiators. From a Presidential field, which included the 2007 set of second term governors who were about finishing their tenures, the reclusive and taciturn Governor of Katsina State, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua was surprisingly picked as Obasanjo’s anointed one. Being the heir to the throne to be vacated by Obasanjo meant Yar’Adua would not need to do much to win the Presidency. Obasanjo, who had engineered the Yar’Adua candidacy was not someone to do things in half measures. The civil war icon literally drew from his battle field experience and fired on all cylinders to achieve the objective of installing his hurriedly recruited successor. On the campaign trail in the build up to 2007 general elections, Obasanjo stomped for his protégé as if he was campaigning for himself. Many close watchers of the unfolding political drama assessed the Ota General’s exertions on behalf of his political godson in the context of self -preservation.

On behalf of Yar’Adua, therefore, messages were crafted to the effect that the reforms initiated from 1999 to 2007 would suffer serious reversals, if someone of like mind, and with integrity was not put in the saddle. As these debates played out in the polity, Yar’Adua was silent for most of the campaign. It was apparently a silence of assessment driven mainly by the sordid realities of governance. Unlike the average pack of Nigeria’s noisy and garrulous politicians, who have little content to give beyond divisive ethnic and sectarian posturing, Yar’Adua was dignified in his silence. For the most, he looked bemused by the high powered political drama playing out around him. On campaign stages, he walked meekly behind his benefactor who commandeered the pitching process giving little room to the candidate himself to say what he would do if elected. Yar’Adua did not object to his godfather’s tendency of always wanting to suck in all the attention and oxygen at every occasion; the candidate merely deployed his taciturnity as a strategic asset, leaving his opponents to argue with themselves. In the course of the electioneering, he made no empty promises; neither did he hurl any vitriol at his opponents. With keen eyes, he observed what went on around him without any apparent interest in gloating in the spotlight.

This posture meant much of the work would be done and dusted by the Obasanjo/PDP political machine, with its hard knuckles proclivities, as it defied the odds to ensure the anointed one was elected to the most powerful office in the land. However, knowing that there would be some booty to be shared down the line, other interests positioned themselves as the front men and women of the Yar’Adua Presidency. By the time the electoral verdict of the 2007 Presidential contest was announced, the interests which promoted the Yar’Adua/Jonathan ticket had inflicted a moral quagmire on the would-be President. These interests went out of their way to ensure a crooked win, and they did it to the point that the 2007 elections have gone down in Nigeria’s history as the most brazenly rigged ever.

To his credit, one of the very first things Yar’Adua did was to set himself free from the burden of that electoral heist by owning up to his flawed mandate. For a country where citizens had become so accustomed to impunity by those in the highest echelons of governance, President Yar’Adua’s moment of truth fired imaginations. Many reckoned that a man who could come to terms with, and admit that his own mandate was tainted by the subversion of the democratic process could as well lead the process of cleaning up the corrupt electoral system. President Yar’Adua did not only lament; although he was derisively called Baba Go Slow by longsuffering citizens who wanted to see quick action, he moved decisively to set up a framework for electoral reforms. The Justice Uwais Panel on Electoral Reform made up of the best minds in the field of electoral democracy deliberated and came up with far reaching legal and administrative changes. These proposed reforms serve as the basis for which the semblance of sanity being enjoyed in the electoral space today is anchored.

Beyond his legacy on electoral reform, Yar’Adua had a pan Nigerian outlook in the way he governed all through his Presidency. Unlike in the current times, when several sections of the country feel left out or marginalized, the Yar’Adua government took several practical steps to assuage feelings of alienation. One of such big steps was the way he reached out to the agitators in the Niger Delta. Understanding the diverse character of Nigeria, and the need for tact in resolving some of the lingering national questions, President Yar’Adua explore soft power channels to reach out to the agitators in the region. Gradually, he dialogued with the agitators to the point that a template was created for confidence building. President Yar’Adua then followed up to reap the gains of the confidence built by instituting the Presidential Amnesty Programme, which became the framework for the current fragile peace being enjoyed in the region. Again to his credit, the Amnesty Programme was designed not just to silence the booming guns of the agitators in the creeks. There were components of the programme, which sought to address the age-long issues of marginalization and alienation in the Niger-Delta through massive personnel development and the creation of sustainable livelihoods to address poverty in the oil-bearing region. Unfortunately, when he passed away, those other critical components ironically got lost with the focus being on just the skill acquisition for ex-agitators.

Notwithstanding the challenge posed by his frail health, the Yar’Adua Presidency remains a beacon for other administrations, when it comes to the critical issue of the rule of law. Within a few weeks of his ascension of the Presidency, Yar’Adua wasted no time in ordering the release of Local Government funds belonging to Lagos State, which were arbitrarily seized during the imperial Presidency of Obasanjo. In taking that well applauded step, President Yar’Adua put the national and collective interests of Nigerian citizens above partisan consideration. He acted statesmanlike, especially against the back of the verdict of the Supreme Court, which ruled the seizure of the funds an illegality by the Obasanjo regime. Again, that symbolic step sent a clear message about the primacy of the rule of law and the sanctity of the judicial institutions as arbiters in the democratic space. On the whole, the Yar’Adua Presidency sought to promote the notion that the law of Nigeria should be supreme, and no one should be treated as a sacred cow.

On the administrative front, the Yar’Adua Presidency also won hearts by being the first to reduce the pump price of fuel. In June 2007, the Federal Government reduced the pump price of petro from N75 to N65. The empathy he demonstrated in the face of the suffering of citizens was refreshingly different from previous and subsequent administrations, which took steps to further emasculate citizens without any corresponding safety nets. Still on the oil and gas sector, President Yar’Adua took a hard look at the sale of Nigeria’s refineries to private investors and reached the conclusion that the sale was a rip off. Considering what was paid for major national assets like the refineries, the President did not waste time in reversing the sale. It is therefore to his credit that Nigeria still has refineries as parts of its assets, which could have gone the way of the power sector assets, which were sold to private hands without delivering improved service to citizens.

Nonetheless, like all humans, Yar’Adua was not perfect; there were some inherent contradictions within his government, which let down the country. The closeness of some corruption-tainted politicians to the government was a major source of credibility deficit for the government. The hounding of the then Chair of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) Nuhu Ribadu and the appointment of Farida Waziri painted the Yar’Adua Presidency in unflattering light at home and abroad. Yar’Adua also suffered the misfortune of having characters in the ministry of Justice who courted credibility crisis for the government through their various verbal and administrative mishaps.

Although President Yar’Adua was responsible for the appointees and aides he brought on board, it is one of the lessons of leadership in the Nigerian context that those appointees failed their principal when it mattered most. When the President’s health challenges became a full blown national crises, it could be argued that at the time he was flown out of the country, he was not in a position to transmit power to his Vice President, Goodluck Jonathan. But instead of letting the Constitution prevail and save the nation the ordeal of unelected persons exercising power, the President’s appointees should have simply followed their principal’s well-known adherence to the rule of law. Instead, majority of those appointees, except a few like the late Dora Akunyili, put their vested interests above the Constitution. Through various crude and dubious schemes, the small-minded characters around President Yar’Adua eroded public sympathy for the ailing leader. The blame for how his illness was mishandled will be shared by the unpatriotic elements who did not have the courage to put the nation above their crude politics.

In the minds of Nigerians remembering President Yar’Adua, nine years on, the dominant memories would be of a patriot who preached the importance of the rule of law and national cohesion. President Yar’Adua, notwithstanding the challenges posed by his ill health was a man who believed in democracy and he did his best to ensure it thrives in Nigeria.


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