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Anxiety over Yar'Adua's health: President Musa Yar'Adua's health has become a major worry for Nigerians. The anxiety went into overdrive when the president took another "vacation" on 26 January to, according to the grapevine, seek another round of medical treatment. And what is more unnerving--his official spokesmen continue to say nothing to the nation, reports Osasu Obayiuwana from Lagos.

At the best of times, coping with the demands of running an ethnically diverse and politically complicated country such as Nigeria is tasking, even for a president in peak physical condition. But President Umaru Yar'Adua's decision to say as little as he can about his health worries, obviously a sensitive personal subject--has done little to reduce anxiety in the Nigerian polity, as commentators continually question his ability to discharge the strenuous functions of his office.

"Anybody ruling any complex entity like Nigeria should be in the best of luck. It is obvious that this president is not in the best of luck, even he will be the first to admit that," Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka recently commented.

Yar'Adua is alleged--as there is no official confirmation of this--to be suffering from long-term kidney problems. His recent decision to go on a two-week holiday from 26 January, at a time that world leaders were brainstorming on how to plot a way out of the global financial crisis at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, did little to dispel rumours that his health was failing and he was seeking discreet treatment.


Those rumours, however, were not a worry for Segun Adeniyi, Yar'Adua's presidential spokesman, who refused to make any pronouncement on his boss's health. "I'm not going to react to that story. Whether it is true or false, newspapers can go ahead speculating on the health of Mr President. I won't talk about it," Adeniyi said.

Nigeria's Business Day newspaper had quoted a special assistant in the presidency as saying aides and ministers were trying to get approval for government business before he left. Although Yar'Adua made it clear in a statement that all matters normally handled by him will be dealt with by Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan, the capacity in which Jonathan functioned during Yar'Adua's vacation became a matter of fierce debate by parliamentarians and constitutional lawyers.

Section 145 of Nigeria's 1999 Constitution states that: "Whenever the president transmits to the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is proceeding on vacation or that he is otherwise unable to discharge the functions of his office, until he transmits to them written declaration to the contrary such functions shall be discharged by the vice president as acting president."


The common-sense interpretation of this section would be that Vice President Goodluck cannot assume the functions of the president when he goes on vacation, unless the president has formally written to parliament that he is doing so.

But David Mark and Dimeji Bankole, senate president and speaker of the House of Representatives respectively, did not receive any such "written declaration" from Yar'Adua, which meant that Goodluck was constitutionally impaired from acting as president and could only carry out functions at the pleasure of the vacationing president.

Yar'Adua reportedly spent the entire two weeks within the country, resting, reading books and attending the burial of the Yobe State governor, Mamman Ali, who died from leukemia in an American hospital. When Yar'Adua was governor of Katsina State for eight years, he made regular trips to Germany for treatment, which compelled him to absent himself from work at certain periods.

His health did not become a subject of national concern until he began to campaign for the presidency in 2007. In the thick of what was a rigorous campaign to succeed Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar'Adua slipped out of the country and went to Germany to treat what was said to be '"a serious bout of catarrh".

His absence at that most inauspicious time led to wild rumours that his ailment was fatal and he had died in hospital. Obasanjo, who branded the rumour-mongers as "wicked", was compelled to telephone Yar'Adua in Germany while at a campaign rally, so the public could hear his voice and nip the story, which had spread like wildfire, in the bud.

That was just the start of what has subsequently become a public relations nightmare for Yar'Adua. With many people beginning to believe that his questionable health has been primarily responsible for the snail-slow pace of his administration, the media management of another trip to Saudi Arabia in August 2008 did little to assuage the fears of those who felt that the truth was being hidden from a worried Nigerian public.

Though his officials announced that Yar'Adua was going to observe Muslim rites at the time, it was subsequently revealed that he received medical treatment in Jeddah. No government spokesman was willing--or mandated--to state the true position of things. It was only a brief public appearance from Yar'Adua, on his return to the country, that convinced Nigerians he was not bedridden abroad.


That trip to Saudi Arabia--and others made subsequently after that--did little to stop the power play that has been going on amongst rival officials in the government, who are jostling for influence. Baba Gana Kingibe, the erstwhile secretary to the Federal Government, was forced to fall on his proverbial sword and resign after he was judged by Yar'Adua to have been disloyal to him while he was in Saudi Arabia.

Responding to claims of ill-health in a rare interview with the Financial Times of London last year (he is yet to grant a detailed interview to any Nigerian newspaper or magazine since taking power in May 2007), Yar'Adua said he felt "elated" when he heard the rumours about his ill-health.

"They confirm to me I am not what those peddling the rumours want to believe I should be--I am an ordinary human being, I am not a super-human being; I don't know one yet, but certainly I'm nor one. I am a normal human being who can fall sick, recover, who can die, have feelings, who can be angered, who can laugh ... and who is fit enough to be president," he insisted.

Nicknamed "Baba-Go-Slow" and "Baba-Standstill" for what has been described by his ardent critics as his slow-coach pace in tackling national problems, the former university lecturer refuses to be baited by his adversaries.

"I smile [at the criticism] because I know [otherwise]," Yar'Adua said in his defence in an interview last year. "You cannot make major achievements by just trying to rush things. The quality of your planning, the quality of your programmes, determines the nature of their achievements."

Rule of law

Adherence to the "rule of law" and "due process" has been a mantra of Yar'Adua's government and he says this is his "greatest achievement," claiming--and rightly so--that the refusal of Nigeria's past and present political office holders to uphold the law is responsible for the level of decay in the country. "All the problems this country is facing can be traced to a breakdown of respect for the rule of law, regulations, procedures and due process in almost every aspect of our national life."

The frustration of Nigerians with Yar'Adua's pace was aptly described by Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Laureate, in a recent newspaper interview. "I have not seen even implementation or a sign of implementation, of what this administration declares to be its priority," Soyinka said. "... In my own understanding of the word, emergency, which includes, emergency measures, attitude, supply, procurement, emergency implementation among others, I have not seen the evidence of that sense of emergency, which the rest of the nation feels, myself included."

While, like most Nigerians, Soyinka sympathised with the president's health "problems", Soyinka struck a chord with a growing band of those who feel that the country should not be held hostage to Yar'Adua's physical state. "[His health] should not be an impediment towards good and effective governance," Soyinka said. "I sympathise with him for his condition but governance is more of the use of the mind than the physical body. So whatever his physical condition is, I expect him to utilise the full power of his mind and have people do the work for him, once he sets out the administration and governance plan."

With barely two and a half years left on Yar'Adua's (first) term in office, time is running out quickly. He promised that 2009 was going to be an "interesting year" for Nigeria. One only hopes the ensuing months will herald a change in tempo that will convince a sceptical population of his determination to steer the country to a long-overdue transformation.
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Title Annotation:NIGERIA
Author:Obayiuwana, Osasu
Publication:New African
Geographic Code:6NIGR
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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