Umaru Yar’Adua’s death last week at the age of 58 was not enough, in the end, to settle the man’s debt to history. One was not surprised that the man’s passing provoked that rather predictable brand of biographical revisionism that death encourages in us. Truth is, too many of us are in a hurry to endow the dead with virtues, earned or unearned. Nigerian newspapers have come to count on huge profits from our habit of declaring that each deceased person lived “a life well spent” and had gained “transition to eternal glory.”
In Yar’Adua’s case, this inflation of the heroic stature of the dead has received both official imprimatur from Abuja – with “President” Goodluck Jonathan ascribing patriotism to his erstwhile boss – and international corroboration – with numerous world leaders, including America’s Barack Obama, extolling Yar’Adua’s mettle.
I felt sad at news of Yar’Adua’s death, but that sadness could not erase my deeper sadness at his role in ruining the lives of Nigerians.
At a time like this, when otherwise sensible people are falling for a contrived creed of Yar’Adua’s greatness or – equally deceptive – his humility and honesty, it is absolutely important to remind ourselves who Yar’Adua was not.
Going by his public record, he was not a great man. Instead, he was ethically puny, a man who lent himself as a pawn in former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s depraved game.
Let’s not forget that Yar’Adua was not contemplating a run for the presidency until Obasanjo sowed the idea in his mind. A wise man might have demurred. Yar’Adua knew he had severe limitations. He was dogged by a debilitating disease that had hobbled him during the eight years of his governorship in Katsina. Thanks to this illness, and perhaps to his own inadequate managerial skills, he’d been, at best, a mediocre governor.
After eight years of Obasanjo’s corrupt, hypocritical presidency, Nigeria was a profound mess. The country needed a leader gifted with energy, vision and patriotic drive to commence the task of recuperating its promise. Yar’Adua must have known he was not that man. He was a man racked by a life-threatening illness. The only job he should have been interested in was one in which he spent all his time and energy looking after his health.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that Yar’Adua had somehow forgotten about his own severe physical limitations. Well, his disease dutifully reminded him. We all remember that tense moment when the man took ill in the heat of the presidential campaigns, and had to be flown to Germany for emergency treatment. An honest man, a man who told himself the truth (never mind telling others) would have seized that opportunity to remove himself from the race. He knew then that he was too frail of health for the demands of the job Obasanjo wanted to thrust him into. If he couldn’t make a sensible judgment where his health was concerned, he certainly had no business presiding over the complex business of running the lives of 150 million people.
Who doesn’t recall that moment when a mischievous Obasanjo put a call across to a hospitalized Yar’Adua in Germany and asked, “Umaru, are you dead?” A man who was honest to himself should have answered, “Not yet, but I’m well on my way. So I quit!”
Instead, Yar’Adua not only let Obasanjo impose him as the PDP’s candidate but also cooperated in the former president’s wicked determination to foist him on Nigeria. In effect, the ex-governor of Katsina acquiesced in Obasanjo’s mean-spirited plot to penalize Nigerians for denying him an illicit third term.
Some Nigerians appeared impressed when Yar’Adua admitted to irregularities in the election that produced him as “president.” He won numerous fans when he pledged that electoral reforms would be one of his priorities. Many commended what they mistook for honesty in the man. But some of us were not deceived. I was dismayed by Yar’Adua’s tainted – in fact, false – sense of honesty. An honest man, I argued, does not seek to keep stolen goods. And that’s exactly what Yar’Adua did; he occupied a presidency that – despite our Supreme Court’s bizarre majority verdict – was stolen.
As “president,” Yar’Adua essentially wasted an embattled nation’s time. He dozed while Nigerians groaned under worsening power supply. He snored away while Nigeria was paralyzed by one of the worst, and longest, fuel crises in its history. He filled his cabinet with too many men and women of questionable ethical credentials, and looked the other way as some of his appointees gravely betrayed the public trust.
Oh, how about that Yar’Aduian promise of electoral reforms? Indeed, he cobbled together a commission headed by retired Justice Muhammad Uwais and asked it to generate ideas for electoral reforms. But when the Uwais commission came up with some promising proposals, Yar’Adua promptly jettisoned the best of them. With his (s)election validated by the courts, Yar’Adua felt free to reveal his truest (rigging-loving) self. As if to underscore his personal commitment to electoral fraud, he personally led his party to showcase new technologies of hijacking elections. Nigerians saw the deceptive face of Yar’Adua’s concept of electoral reforms in re-run governorship elections in Adamawa, Kogi and Ekiti. In each case, Yar’Adua’s PDP exhibited its abiding faith in the dictum that voters don’t really count.
Yes, Yar’Adua showed intermittent flashes of life now and again. He reversed some of Obasanjo’s fire brigade sale of the nation’s most prized assets to a coterie. After months of sustaining Obasanjo’s policy of blanketing the deltaic forests with bombs, he wisely toed the path of peace by offering amnesty to the militant groups (never mind that that policy, in effect, merely sought to paper over a more deeply serious, festering crisis).
Some made a great deal of the fact that Yar’Adua was Nigeria’s first executive “president” with a university degree. Yet, his regime did little to improve the state of education in the country. His government was hardly fazed when schools were closed nationwide because striking teachers demanded to be paid the kind of monthly wage that politicians hand out to their girlfriends as taxi fare. Then, he treated university academics – his former constituency – with open contempt when they too asked for a more decent pay scale.
Yar’Adua was a sick ruler, but it never occurred to him to address his nation’s healthcare woes. He and his handlers were never capable of realizing that his frequent evacuation to foreign countries was a cause of national embarrassment.
Let’s not be in a hurry to forget that Yar’Adua chose, each time he was flown abroad for medical treatment, not to hand over to his deputy. In his vision, Nigeria was a personal toy he could play with at will, or toss to a corner when it suited him. His disdain for Nigerians inspired a massive political deception. Yar’Adua and his handlers contrived a false feud between the Senate President and the Speaker of the House to mask the fact that Yar’Adua was too sick to appear before the National Assembly to present a budget. His medical trips to Saudi Arabia were misrepresented as religious pilgrimages.
In his last days, many saw Yar’Adua as a victim of greedy, power-hungry wife. That’s not the whole truth. His own behavior actually served as a model for his wife and his cabal of confidence tricksters as they insisted that a comatose, dying man was fit enough to steer the ship of state.
Wole Soyinka was right in describing him as a tragic figure who played in the tragic arena that Nigeria has become. Nigerians should not forget all the actors and factors that brought us to this sordid present. The parade is long: Obasanjo, Maurice Iwu, judges who, rather than have the courage to speak the truth, used their own mouths to gobble feces, traditional rulers who never see evil they would not want to profit from, journalists and columnists who, for a mess of porridge, spread the lie that Yar’Adua would have won in a credible election, religious leaders who profaned God by describing Yar’Adua’s stolen mandate as divine decree, any Nigerian who embraced the culture of rigging.
The euphoria of false adulation will soon die down. Then Yar’Adua’s legacy must contend with the judgment of history. History won’t be deceived by the fact of the man’s death – after all, we all will die – nor by our inclination to wax with encomiums for the dead.