As President Umaru Yar’Adua returned to Abuja last week, after three months of medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, the country appeared to be sliding back to the precipice of a constitutional crisis regarding who was in charge of affairs of state. Yar’Adua's absence from office created a power vacuum that led to a political crisis; the president failed to transfer power to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan. But three weeks ago, the National Assembly reached a political solution by declaring Jonathan the acting president.
The sudden return of Yar’Adua caught many people by surprise. In fact, it started as a rumour, which was initially dismissed. Rather than the president’s return, many focussed attention on the trip by a delegation of ministers to Saudi Arabia to ascertain the president’s state of health. The federal executive council had three weeks ago, after a rowdy session over the fate of the ailing president, set up a six-man team to visit the hospital in Saudi Arabia, determine the president’s state of health and report back to council. But Nigerians were sceptical about the trip because similar ones by federal legislators, state governors and officials of the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP, had been fruitless. On Tuesday, last week, news filtered back home that the ministers had not been able to see Yar’Adua. The six-man team, comprising Yayale Ahmed, secretary to the government of the federation, SGF; Adetokunbo Kayode, attorney-general of the federation and minister of justice, as well as four other ministers -- Ojo Maduekwe (foreign affairs), Abba Ruma (agriculture and water resources), Babatunde Osotimehin (health) and Rilwan Lukman (petroleum resources) -- met with Saud Al- Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister and Garba Aminchi, Nigerian ambassador to Saudi Arabia. It was Aminchi who told the delegation that the president was already on his way to Nigeria.
The president’s return was unusually secretive and it was like an action movie for those who saw it. Such was the clandestine nature of the plan that Jonathan did not know about it until a few hours to Yar’Adua’s landing at the Abuja airport. In fact virtually all senior officials of government at different levels, who should have been in the welcoming party, including David Mark, senate president and Dimeji Bankole, speaker of the House of Representatives, were kept in the dark and, therefore, caught unawares. The magazine learnt that the chief coordinators of the drama were Adamu Aliero, minister of the Federal Capital Territory, FCT, and Yisa Yuguda, governor of Bauchi State, who is married to Yar’Adua’s daughter. As much as possible, they tried to keep the president’s return secret even from airport and aviation authorities to the extent of posing possible security risks. For example, against the procedure, the coordinators of the trip from Saudi Arabia initially refused to send a manifest of passengers on the expected flight; they kept saying it was a delegation of the Saudi monarch that was coming. At another time, they said it was the king. They just kept changing the list. It was not until Tuesday morning that a list came from Saudi showing that the president and eight persons were on board, including family members, two doctors, one Jordanian and one Saudi. This was after they had been told that the relevant authorities might not clear the aircraft.
But through various sources, newsmen heard of the president’s return and thronged the airport to report the event. They were turned back at the presidential wing where soldiers from the Brigade of Guards told them that they had instructions not to let even an ant pass through. The president was brought to the nation’s capital in the middle of the night in an air ambulance. The air ambulance touched down at exactly 1.16 am in utter darkness. Journalists who watched the touch down from hundreds of metres away could not decipher anything, but that an aircraft had landed. As soon as it landed, the air ambulance taxied to a far end of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport where it put out all its lights. A second aircraft landed minutes later. Thereafter an ambulance on ground accompanied by a convoy of vehicles under the cover of darkness drove towards the air ambulance from where Yar’Adua was evacuated into the ambulance and the convoy drove out of the airport. Many airport workers were chased away from the vicinity of the presidential wing of the airport while all this went on.
Residents of Abuja were apprehensive and many actually speculated that a military coup had taken place because soldiers were deployed along the road -- from the federal secretariat, in the central business district, to the airport.
However, for some, Yar’Adua’s return would not have come as a surprise. In fact, to them, it came belatedly. The truth is that President Yar’Adua would have been ferried home about three weeks ago but for logistics and medical constraints. The magazine learnt that talks about bringing him back actually began when the United States, US, government, which has strategic interests in Nigeria, through diplomatic channels, reached out to Saudi authorities over the political impasse occasioned by Yar’Adua’s absence. Washington is believed to have told Riyadh that the international community would regard it as an accomplice in the political situation in Nigeria since it had done nothing to stop the lie being peddled about the true state of the president’s health. The US government might have advised Riyadh to pressure the Yar’Adua family to take the president back home since it had become obvious that nothing else could be done medically about his situation. The Saudi government accepted this counsel and must have put pressure on Yar’Adua’s handlers because about three weeks ago some of the president’s men indicated that he was returning home within days. However, the problem was that Yar’Adua’s condition demanded special care. For weeks, he has been in Intensive Care Unit, ICU, at the King Fahd Hospital, Jeddah. Some sources said that the president had been on life support and that detaching him from the machines to transport him home would have been dangerous. To move him safely required an air ambulance specially kitted to care for him. There were also the issues of doctors, drugs and other equipment that would be required for his care in Nigeria. But the required air ambulance and other logistics could not be worked out until last week.
But what finally forced the hands of the first family was the decision two weeks ago by the Nigerian government to send an official delegation to Saudi Arabia demanding information on the president’s health. Before then, it could be said that all others who had been turned away from seeing Yar’Adua could not have claimed to be doing so in any real official capacity. But when government formally wrote to the Saudi king, it forced the authorities to take action. That was to give the first family one week to evacuate Yar’Adua so as not to draw the Saudis into the political problems in Nigeria.
Turai Yar’Adua, the first lady, and the president’s close associates quickly saw the possibility of changing the emerging power equation that had thrown up Jonathan. For many political observers, who have followed the intriguing power game in the last few weeks, Yar’Adua’s return is a master stroke of a political move planned and executed to perfection by a coterie of the president’s loyalists coordinated by the first lady. Its effectiveness lies not only in its surprise element, catching many unawares as it did, but, ultimately, in its capacity to turn around the prevailing political calculations and power dynamics in Aso Rock, the seat of power. From their cheerful looks, following the return of the president last week, his supporters apparently believed they had scored a big victory. Some people have said that the plan of the Yar’Adua minders is really very simple -- return the president to the country in whatever shape and, as it was done in the first two months of his stay away from work, make him rule through proxies, particularly his wife. As observed by some lawyers last week, nothing in the constitution compels the president to report for work daily, show his face or speak in public. So technically he can be kept incommunicado while others rule on his behalf.
But such a plan tagged simplistic is unrealistic. For one thing, Yar’Adua’s health condition, according to knowledgeable sources, remains bad and, unlike before, people who matter in the political power equation know this. An appropriate amplification of the sorry state of the president’s health is evidenced by the fact that his handlers did not even know what to do with him for several hours after he arrived from Saudi Arabia. The president was reportedly left in the ambulance that brought him from the airport to the State House because the long trip had taken a toll on his already precarious condition.
As published in earlier editions of TELL, the president’s physical state had become really pathetic. He has reportedly lost a lot of weight. According to a source, the recent weight loss makes him look “nearly like a skeleton.” Also "part of his face has been disfigured to the extent that he is virtually unrecognisable." So Yar’Adua is truly in no shape to be shown to the public. That is why he was brought in under the cover of darkness like a thief and all airport formalities that attend presidential arrivals had to be discarded.
Apart from the victory song on the lips of many Yar’Adua’s supporters, a statement by Segun Adeniyi, the presidential spokesperson, last Wednesday addressing the issue of his return might be an indication of the attitude of Yar’Adua’s aides. In the statement, Adeniyi, on behalf of the president, thanked Nigerians, Jonathan, Mark, Bankole, National Assembly members, state governors and others “for their roles in maintaining order and stability during his absence.” He said that “his health has greatly improved,” and “while the president completes his recuperation, Vice President Jonathan will continue to oversee the affairs of state.” Significantly, the statement recognised Jonathan as vice president not acting president. But others in the administration, including the SGF, continue to refer to Jonathan as acting president.
The issue of the true status of both Jonathan and Yar’Adua will be the next stage of the constitutional battle ahead for the country. A minister in the Yar’Adua government told the magazine that Yar’Adua had assumed the role of president as soon as he returned last week and that transmitting the information to the National Assembly was a mere formality. But even Adeniyi’s statement made it clear that Yar’Adua was still recuperating and that Jonathan would run the affairs of state. But the knotty issue to be resolved is the capacity in which he would do that. By some reckoning, he would naturally continue as acting president. However, Adeniyi’s statement actually demoted Jonathan to vice president.
But there is also a groundswell of opinion that Jonathan should be given the full powers of the president because it has become obvious now that Yar’Adua is incapacitated. It is quite likely that the following weeks might amplify this position if Yar’Adua does not by some miracle get on his feet and return to work. The issue of who is in charge was finally laid to rest in a broadcast on the National Television Authority network on Thursday by Adeniyi. He clarified that until Yar’Adua gets on his feet, Jonathan remains acting president and commander-in-chief.
Some people in the presidency actually blame Jonathan for the events that have culminated in the political cul-de-sac in which the country has berthed. Some have said that if the acting president had taken some decisive steps as soon as he became acting president, matters would not have come to the point they did last week. For example, Jonathan in their opinion demonstrated some weakness when he allowed Michael Aondoakaa, former attorney-general, a soft-landing by moving him to the special duties ministry instead of his initial plan to sack him. Aondoakaa had coordinated the regime of official policy of deceit over the true state of Yar’Adua’s health. Even worse, Jonathan also let go others who helped sustain the public deception but whom intelligence also showed had either been involved in criminal activity in the process of covering up the president’s true condition or had perpetrated brazen acts of corruption in the last few months of power vacuum.
Jonathan had been advised to expose such high-ranking members of the government and hand them over to relevant security agencies for prosecution. But the acting president decided to tow the path of caution. An aide of the acting president, however, maintained last week that it was the path of wisdom. According to the aide, Jonathan did not want to take any precipitate action that might be misread by the public but wanted the facts of the case made clear before taking any action. The magazine learnt that the acting president had made up his mind to take some far-reaching decisions, including the sacking of some ministers. It was said that the FEC meeting last Wednesday was to have served as the platform for announcing the sack of the ministers. However, the return of the president preempted that move. There are speculations that some of the ministers to be sacked got wind of the plot and hastened the president’s return, which was originally planned for last Friday.
The FEC meeting did not hold last week. Ministers had been seated in the council chambers for over an hour when Ahmed came to announce a postponement. There had been some confusion as ministers waited to see who would chair the FEC meeting. Ahmed, who returned with other members of the federal government delegation to Saudi Arabia that morning, told the ministers that there would be a special meeting with Jonathan later in the afternoon. That meeting did not last up to 10 minutes. The acting president merely told the ministers that the president’s aides had informed him that the president had returned and he (Jonathan) would see the first lady.
But it did appear that the first lady and others who wanted Yar’Adua to remain in power, even though incapacitated, might not have much room to manoeuvre. But knowing the president’s wife there were suggestions last week in some quarters that she might make one last pitch before resigning to fate by trying to use her position one last time to bargain for some kind of settlement for the Yar’Adua loyalists. The first lady would present an option to Jonathan that might appear to serve the interest of Yar’Adua’s loyalists but ultimately a last-ditch effort to cling to power in whatever form. Her deal, it is said, would be to insist that she hand-picks Jonathan’s vice president in the event that Yar’Adua resigns. Turai’s choice is believed to be Yuguda, an in-law to the first family, who played a prominent role in planning the president’s return. Actually, some sources close to the first family said that this option had been on the card since Yar’Adua’s health started deteriorating last year but the problem was the process of achieving it.
By press time last week, not much had happened in the horse-trading and it was still not clear how the political impasse thrown up by the president’s return would play out. But there is a consensus among major stakeholders that Yar’Adua is obviously too incapacitated to continue in office. By some reports, the Yar’Adua family had actually gotten tired of the embarrassment that the president’s absence and the ensuing political crisis had brought on them and the nation and had actually fought Turai in the last few weeks to return her husband home.
There were indications at the weekend that Yar’Adua might be taken to Katsina State, where he was governor for eight years. As the uncertainty of the situation gripped the nation, Jonathan on Wednesday night stated that the ship of state was on course and that there was no cause for alarm. In a statement signed by Ima Niboro, his spokesman, Jonathan asked Nigerians to come together and put the country’s interest above individual and other considerations. Imploring citizens to work for peace, security and stability in the country, he declared, “We have only one country that we can call our own.” But even that statement sounded like a warning to people who might want to exploit the situation for selfish reasons. Another came from US government. It warned against using Yar’Adua’s return to fuel tension in the country. Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state, Bureau of African Affairs, said, “The United States welcomes the news of President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria. We hope that his health is sufficient to enable him to fully resume his official duties.” It went further: “Nigeria needs a strong, healthy and effective leader to ensure the stability of the country and to manage Nigeria’s many political, economic and security challenges.” The United States also said it hoped that Yar’Adua’s return “is not an effort by his senior advisors to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process.”
There were warnings from other quarters within the country last week as well. The Nigerian Bar Association, through Rotimi Akeredolu, its president, said in Abuja that Jonathan would continue to be regarded as the acting president. Akeredolu criticised the manner of the president’s return under the cover of darkness and said that until Yar’Adua came out to address the nation in person his return would be irrelevant and meaningless.
Also last week, the magazine learnt that the National Assembly was watching developments with keen interest. Many members of both chambers are said to be angry that ministers who have the constitutional responsibility to act have not shown seriousness about completely resolving the political crisis. As at the time of going to press, meetings were still being held by senators and House members about how they would react. One senator confides in the magazine that the general view in both chambers is that if FEC members fail to act, then “next week, the National Assembly will look again at stepping in to salvage this country from collapse. Many of us know the true state of the president’s health so we cannot be deceived. If we have to impeach the president, we will do so,” adding that not even the leadership of the National Assembly would be able to stand in the way of that eventuality.