As we reminisce on former president Yar’Adua’s death 7 years ago today, we flashback on the politics that surrounded Yar’Adua’s health and his eventual demise.
These are excerpts from former SA Segun Adeniyi’s book, Power, Politics and Death. Do see below:
1 The beginning of the end
“Although hardly ever ready on schedule, it was no less alarming when, as of late March, the 2008 Appropriation Bill had yet to be signed into law. The reason for the delay this time arose from a disagreement between the president and the National Assembly over the powers of the legislature in relation to the budgeting process. There was, therefore, understandable anxiety within the polity, especially as it emerged that President Yar’Adua was somewhat reluctant to sign the budget over what he saw as the extreme meddlesomeness of the lawmakers. The president’s resolve was further strengthened by a meeting held on April 3, 2008, at the villa, which reviewed and subsequently endorsed his decision to challenge the powers of the National Assembly at the Supreme Court. With no apparent resolution at the meeting, the president hinted that the crisis was better resolved by the Supreme Court. The legislators thought it was a bluff; but once they realised he was serious, there were subtle threats that the Supreme Court option would
not work. Their position was simple but no less grim: if they were served any notice to that effect, their lawyers would require ample time for response. And since it was already April, they said, chances were that there might not be a budget for the year.
Members of the House in the delegation were particularly hostile. They argued that since the powers of the president to authorise spending was ordinarily lost by the end of June (barely two months from the meeting date), a constitutional crisis was inevitable if he pursued the Supreme Court option. In the end, it was pragmatism that prevailed. There was a compromise that the president should sign the bill as passed, after which the act would be sent back for amendment. It was on this basis that I briefed the media to the effect that the president would sign the 2008 Appropriation Bill.”
2. The first sickness
Everything was therefore set for the signing of the budget on April 12, 2008, but early that morning, I got a call from the CSO that I had to come to the villa. On arrival at the residence, I saw the president exiting his study, and I almost did not recognise him. His entire face had swollen to the extent that he could barely see. The problem, from what the doctor told me, began the previous week when the president started taking some malaria drugs that had been prescribed for him. A few days after it was noticed that there was scarcely any improvement, another medication was recommended. But while it brought the needed relief from malaria, it unleashed an allergic reaction that manifested in the form of a swollen face.
The chief of staff, General Mohammed, who had been with the president from the night before also recounted how dramatic the development had been. He said that before the president had taken the prescribed drug, he had actually hinted that he was allergic to it, but the doctors had said it was not the same drug. But not more than a few minutes after taking the medication, his face began to swell up. By Sunday night, the situation had deteriorated, necessitating a visit to the National Hospital, where the chief medical director, Dr Olusegun Ajuwon, and a team of experts were waiting. Notwithstanding their efforts, the president was evidently in very bad shape on April 12, 2008. The budget signing was fixed for 10:00 a.m. and some correspondents had started arriving in the villa. Meanwhile, efforts were being made to secure German visas for the security men and a few aides, including myself. For me, there was a big dilemma: how would the president sign the budget without being exposed to the public in the state he was in? I asked the chief of staff whether the budget could be assented to without any ceremony, but he said the convention required that there be witnesses, in which case the National Assembly’s principal officers had to be present. This information would be instructive in December 2009 when the supplementary budget had to be signed at a Saudi hospital with no witnesses.
3. Germany, here we come
“When we eventually got to Germany that night, the condition of the president had improved remarkably, and his face was actually coming back to normal. So we simply drove straight to the hotel, and it was only the next morning that he checked into the hospital.
Four days later, I went to see him at the hospital, accompanied by the ADC. He was sitting alone on a chair and looked very tired. He was happy nonetheless to see us and asked questions about events back home, but after about 30 minutes we left him and headed back to the hotel. The next day, Friday, he was discharged, and he came back to the hotel. The media back home was already awash with speculations about the state of his health. So, the expectation that we would soon be going home gave me some sense of relief. But I was soon to be disappointed.
The disappointment came later that evening when I inquired about our return date and Dr Banye appeared uncertain. The medical process had yet to be concluded, as the president would be returning to the hospital two days later to prepare for further tests, he told me. On Sunday, the president left the hotel again, this time for a hospital in Frankfurt for another test before he returned to the Wiesbaden hospital. It was there he went through what was described as a ‘minor surgery’ the next day.”
4. Media drama
“My dilemma grew worse. Given that by Saturday I had told Nigerians through an interview I granted the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) that the president would be returning home, I was now under intense pressure since I could no longer confirm with certainty the date of his return to Nigeria. A few aides of the First Lady informed me she had issues with my interview, especially the fact that I had set a date for the president’s return, but our paths never quite crossed. Even though we were on the same floor in the hotel, I never ventured into her room since she did not ask for me.
To make up for the absence of the president, however, I seized every opportunity for him to appear to dispel any untoward rumour. First, I learnt that Chief Gani Fawehinmi, who had been diagnosed with cancer at a UK hospital, was about to clock 70. I quickly called Kayode Komolafe, my former colleague at THISDAY, to give me Gani’s London
number. I also discussed with the CSO and ADC what I planned to do in order to preempt any opposition: I wanted the president to call Gani and congratulate him on his birthday. I eventually succeeded in getting him to make the call and that played well in the media back home—but only for a few days. Relief came when, after almost two weeks, the president was discharged from the hospital. A date was thus set for his return.”
5. Villa politics
“Back at the villa, it was very evident that a lot of things would change, and it did not take long for that to unfold. There were speculations then that aside from his kidney problems, the president had been diagnosed with lung cancer. It was mere speculation, which nobody could confirm, but it was evident that the health report had not been positive. Whatever might have been the information from the German hospital, it was also very clear that some warnings had been given on the president’s work schedules. The First Lady accused Inuwa Baba, a long time associate of the family, of always bringing people to see the president at odd hours. She read the riot act to other aides, spelling out rules that would reduce the number of people seeing the president after office hours and the time after which nobody should be allowed to come to the residence.
The first thing I noticed when we returned was that the president, who was usually down at his study as early as 8:30 a.m. now began to surface there between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., sometimes even as late as noon. Although he now seldom got to the office early, he tried to make up for it by closing late. There were days when we would still be in the office at 10:00 p.m.”
6. Saudi Arabia beckons
“Shortly before the Federal Executive Council meeting adjourned for break on August 20, 2008, the president informed members that he would be travelling to Saudi Arabia later that day to perform the lesser hajj (umrah). He said he would leave the council chambers by lunch break (1:30 p.m.) and that when it reconvened by 2:30, the VP would be presiding.
I had been informed days earlier about the trip, including the fact that the president would return on Sunday, August 24 because we were scheduled to travel to Brazil on Tuesday, August 26 on a state visit. I was not on the Saudi trip—the first time I would be left out
of a foreign trip—but I considered going to the country more a religious voyage than an official one, so it really didn’t bother me. Sahara reporters soon reported that the president had gone to Saudi Arabia for medicals and not for umrah.
Initially, my response was one of contempt for the story, but when on Saturday I confirmed that the president would not be returning by the weekend, even though the advance party to Brazil had been told to proceed, I began to suspect that there was more to the trip than we were being told. With the international media latching on to the story that the president was in Saudi Arabia for medicals, there were calls for full disclosure on the president’s health status.
The Saudi Arabia trip was not without its own drama because it was done in such a manner that the president’s chief physician (CPP), Dr Banye, was curiously left out, without the knowledge of even the president, who was evidently angry when at the airport he asked, “Where is Salisu?” only to be told that his chief physician was not on the trip. He immediately directed that arrangements be made for Banye to join him in Saudi Arabia the next day. The change of hospital from Germany to Saudi Arabia (without the prior knowledge of the CPP) was done on the belief that the American security agents had penetrated the hospital and had gained access to the president’s health profile. Going to Saudi Arabia was, therefore, a move to protect such information, but from what I would later learn, it was an exercise in futility.”
8. Oath of secrecy
“The situation virtually graduated from frying pan to fire a week later when the principal secretary to the president, David Edevbie, led 70 political aides of both President Yar’Adua and Vice President Goodluck Jonathan to take an oath of secrecy. The oath, administered by Justice Hussaini Yusuf of the High Court of Justice, Abuja, was held at the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja. While this was part of some futile civil service rituals, critics described it as a ploy to curb information flow about the health of the president. The situation was not helped by the fact that even the spokesman for the president openly swore to an oath of secrecy!
The oath of secrecy was a funny affair. I recall we were having a series of leaks of information in the villa. We would finish a meeting and the details discussed would be on the internet in less than 30 minutes. There was an instance when the president conveyed a meeting to discuss the problem between NICON Insurance and the federal government. Not more than ten minutes after the meeting ended, Jimoh Ibrahim called to express his displeasure at the position I took, which he said did not reflect the fact that we were friends. When I asked what he was talking about, he quoted verbatim what I said at the meeting. I reported the incident to the president because we were just about eight in the meeting.
Also at this period, media houses were openly publishing confidential memos from ministers, and a staff member in the president’s office was also caught selling documents to a bank executive.”
9. Yar’Adua’s third Saudi Arabia trip
“On Monday morning, with arrangements for the trip at the concluding stage, I issued the following statement based on what the president had personally scrawled for me: “President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua left Abuja today for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. While there, the President will call on his personal physicians in Jeddah for follow-up medical checks. The President forwarded copies of the 2010 National Appropriation Bill to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives before leaving the country. He wishes the Muslim Ummah and all Nigerians happy Eid-el-Kabir celebrations.”
As expected, there was public outcry not just about another trip to Saudi Arabia, the third within a space of two months, but also on the unprecedented decision to send the appropriation bill to the National Assembly through the special adviser. By then also, there were speculations that the president was actually evacuated on a stretcher to the airport in an ambulance. It was a story that got ample mention on the international media, and the president himself was said to have monitored the news throughout the trip that spoke of his visit to “an undisclosed hospital” in Saudi Arabia for an equally “undisclosed ailment” on Aljazeera.
The first indication I got that the president might actually be on his way back to the country came via an SMS after my phone beeped at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 23, 2009. It was from Omoyele Sowore of saharareporters. He had information that the president had left the hospital and was in fact at the Saudi airport on his way back to Nigeria, he wrote.
Sensing that the story might be true after all, I tried the Saudi numbers of the security details attached to the president, and when I could not reach any of them, I concluded that surely the president was indeed on his way back to Nigeria this time. Given the political situation in Nigeria at the time, the illness of the president, and his continued stay in
Saudi Arabia had caught the attention of the cable networks, most of which had detailed their correspondents in Saudi Arabia to monitor the situation. It was, therefore, no surprise that the moment the president left the hospital, they immediately alerted their correspondents in Nigeria.
At the presidential villa, it was also not difficult for State House correspondents to guess that the president was on his way home, especially when troops from the Brigade of Guards began moving towards the airport. Implicitly, all the plans contrived in Saudi Arabia by the handlers of the president to make the movement a secret affair had become futile. Nothing could be more ironic. By the time the chartered air ambulance and the presidential jet arrived at the Abuja international airport a few minutes apart at about 1:45 a.m., the vicinity was swarming with several pressmen, and CNN, with a camera hidden in the surrounding bush, was able to capture the arrival. Like most Nigerians, I also watched the sad episode live on CNN as one of the aircraft was made to stop in the middle of the tarmac while an ambulance was driven to the plane to evacuate the president. Even though the evacuation was so expertly done as to obscure any glimpse of it from the camera, I sensed trouble because what was happening could only mean one thing: the president was brought back home still sick. I knew this would only complicate the political situation, and I feared that my job would even be far more difficult than it already was.”
10. Yar’Adua dies and power changes hands
“Segun, where are you?”
Before I could reply, there was a command: “Come straight to the Residence.” Even though Colonel Mustapha Dennis Onoyiveta, aide de camp (ADC) to President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, and I were friends and often took liberties with each other, the tone with which he spoke on that night of May 5, 2010, was rather unusual. Curiously, I had just left the same Residence (the official home of the president) where I was to keep an appointment with the First Lady, who, as soon as I arrived, was called upstairs. By the time Mustapha’s call came, I was at my apartment to dismiss the PHCN official I had earlier invited to rectify an electrical fault. While I felt a bit irritated by the commanding tone in his voice, I nonetheless heeded the colonel’s instruction and returned back to the Residence.
As I entered the Red Carpet (the first living room), a security man said the Chief Security Officer (CSO) to the president had detailed him to ask me to sit down and wait rather than go straight in. This was rather unusual, but then we were going through an unusual period at the villa and in the country.
As I reflected on this bizarre situation and the drama of the preceding weeks, I saw the CSO open the door, peep into where I was sitting and then close the door again. That just added to the suspense, but after about another two minutes, the CSO opened the door again and this time beckoned me to come.
The moment I walked into the living room of the president, the CSO and the ADC gripped me, each holding me on either arm. My initial thought was that they wanted to play a prank on me. However, as I attempted to shake myself free, the ADC said, ‘Segun, please, please and please, we are about to tell you something that will shock you, but you have to take it calmly because we are trying to manage the situation. Oga passed away a few minutes ago, and we have immediately alerted the acting president, who will soon be here. Right now, nobody in this house except the First Lady is aware, so please take it like a man.’
I immediately broke down in tears, and I was practically dragged to a seat while the duo continued their movements up and down the stairs.
It took about an hour before Jonathan arrived with a powerful team, which suggested he had called a meeting before coming. With him were Mr Dimeji Bankole, the House of Representatives Speaker; Mr. Ike Ekweremadu, deputy Senate president; Alhaji Yayale Ahmed, secretary to the government of the federation; Major General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, national security adviser; and Chief Mike Oghiadome, the principal secretary.
They all greeted the First Lady, offering their condolences. After a few minutes of accepting their commiseration, she stood up from where she sat and beckoned on Jonathan to escort her upstairs to see the remains of the president. There was a slight hesitation by Jonathan. Then he paused and also asked Bankole to join him as they climbed the staircase. The symbolism of Jonathan going to see the remains of Yar’Adua was not lost on me. For weeks, I had pleaded several times that they should allow him to see the president, but all my pleas fell on deaf ears. Now he was going to see his dead body.
As I surveyed my surroundings, I reflected on the Yar’Adua years. At a time when the nation needed a president who could take quick, strong, and decisive action, his health problems ensured he could not be fully focused on his job. He was, however, a delightful person to work with, and those who accused him of parochialism based on the few
Katsina friends he kept grossly misunderstood him. For some inexplicable reason, in spite of his elite background, Yar’Adua’s network was very limited until he became president. It was said that as governor for eight years, he hardly ever ventured beyond Katsina (his state), Kaduna and Abuja. Outside Nigeria, the only places he visited were Brazil, China, Germany (for his medicals) and Saudi Arabia on spiritual grounds. In fact, his first visit
to the United States came in September 2007 when he attended the United Nations General Assembly. This limited understanding of his environment must have contributed to some of the mistakes he made with regard to critical appointments for which he depended mostly on the judgement of other people. Those appointments contributed significantly to the fiasco of his last days.
By the time Jonathan came back downstairs, his countenance had changed. He was evidently shaken (as anybody would be in his situation), but I also realized that power had changed hands.”