For the second time in two years, Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Yar’Adua heard the reports of his own death.
The first was in the tail end of his presidency campaign in 2007 when his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo had to phone him live on national television: “Umaru, are you dead”?
He was then convalescing in a German hospital where he had undergone treatment.
Through Obasanjo’s phone that was put on speaker for the benefit of the public, everyone heard Yar’Adua’s laughter and his reply that he was alive.
Both times, he tried to make a joke out of the rumours; the first time, the joke was well taken, but this time, when he spoke to THISDAY newspaper on the phone, the nation refused to be amused.
Was the President alive or dead? The speculations flew around the country last Sunday morning – that the President was dead!
The PUNCH newspaper had exclusively reported on Saturday that the President was recuperating in a Saudi Arabia hospital after under-going an operation.
That Sunday, the Leadership newspaper followed with some details; that the President had undergone a second kidney transplant in Saudi Arabia, and was convalescing.
Yet, that day, the story spread that the Nigerian leader had died. Then frantic phone calls and text messages began to whirl around the Nigerian telecommunications space, as citizens began to try to find out the real situation.
By then, the mantra from government spokesmen had proved ineffective; that President Yar’Adua was in robust health and was only in Saudi Arabia for the lesser haj, and he would soon be back.
This became especially true when Yar’Adua’s visit to Brazil was said to have been postponed, but the Brazilian embassy in Abuja told journalists that the visit suffered an out-right cancellation.
An advance party from Nigeria was already in Brazil before the visit was called off. President Yar’Adua has been away from his country for 16 days.
Since Sunday, the issue has been when he would return. At first, Nigerian Information Minister, Mr John Odey had teamed up with Mr Ojo Maduekwe, the Foreign Affairs Minister to say last week that all was well and that the President was not sick but was in Saudi Arabia for purely religious reasons.
Then a harmless question came: “When was the President expected back?”
When Mr Odey said “as soon as possible”, Nigerians knew trouble was afoot. This is because, ordinarily, a President’s itinerary, including his return date, is agreed upon before he leaves for the trip.
Also, on the day the President left Abuja, August 20, his change of the service chiefs was announced – with Chiefs of (Joint) Defence, Army, Navy and Air Force Staff replaced by new appointees.
That dramatic change, even though it had been expected that a new President would choose his own service chiefs, gave rise to another speculation; that Yar’Adua rooted out the old military helmsmen to stem a coup plot.
This was accentuated by the Defence Ministry’s cancellation of a Defence Retreat in Kaduna, the heart of Nigeria’s military establishment and home to its Defence Academy, and First Division Headquarters.
When the President failed to dash back to Abuja to decorate the new Service Chiefs, within days of his departure, mouths began to wag.
And as the old service chiefs were waiting for their successors to be decorated with their new ranks before they would assume their new positions, not only did they not hand over, they well also remained in their offices two weeks after the change was announced.
By Wednesday morning, what happened was not exactly clear and the President was still not yet back in Abuja, though many newspapers had reported he would be back on Tuesday.
To add to the mucking up of the information waters, the President’s younger brother Jafaru, told the DAILY TRUST newspaper that his brother would be back in the country on Thursday. And after saying that, he offered no extra information!
Yet, what really happened? No one can say for sure. As the presidency has refused to come out with the whole truth, speculation has moved in to supply the rest.
The result is that for 15 days, Nigerians did not exactly know what took their President to Saudi Arabia, whether he was truly hospitalized there or not.
From the start
The problem began from the start; the President travelled with a lean entourage that included his wife, daughter, and Chief Security Officer.
So from the start, it looked like the trip was strictly personal - or religious for “ummrah”, the lesser hajj. So when doubts and questions set in.
As nobody could effectively handle the unfolding events and different stories, there has palpable apprehension in Abuja, Lagos and many other cities in the country since Sunday over speculations that the health of President Umaru Yar’Adua had worsened.
The first statement to re-assure the nation did not come from Mr Odey until 9.30pm last Sunday; that Yar’Adua was “very well and healthy.”
Yet, the same newspapers that published Mr Odey’s statement added that top government officials comprising the President’s core loyalists held several meetings that same night to work out modalities on how to handle the uncertainty over President Yar’Adua’s health.
That same Monday, almost all the newspapers reported that President Yar’Adua was still on sick bed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, adding that Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan made frantic efforts to speak with Yar’Adua and his wife, Turai, on the information to be made available to Nigerians.
Emboldened by the government’s non-provision of hard and credible information, newspapers have embraced speculation. Some said the President had undergone a second kidney transplant, while one claimed that Mr Yar’Adua’s wife, Turai, was to be the organ donor, but she developed cold feet as she did not trust Saudi doctors and had asked to leave for Germany for the operation.
Another wrote the transplant was done but that the President’s health had worsened after “his body rejected” the kidney transplant that he had undergone.
Was not willing
One online publication blogged that Yar’Adua’s wife, having given her heart to her man, was not willing to add another part of her anatomy to the earlier gift, and so the President’s younger brother, a Major in the Army, had left for Saudi Arabia to donate a kidney.
Is the President sick? Mr Odey’s statement could only say: ”The Federal Government wishes to restate here that Mr President is very well and healthy. He is in good health to steer the affairs of the state to bring about better livelihood for the generality of the people of Nigeria. He is expected back in Nigeria soon after his trip to Saudi Arabia where he has gone on lesser hajj.”
Various opposition parties and highly placed Nigerians have condemned this information vacuity.
The main opposition party, the Action Congress said in a statement by its National Publicity Secretary, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, commended the media for the revelation that Yar‘Adua had undergone a surgery contrary to official information that he was there for lesser Hajj.
He said: The state of the President‘s health is an important issue. It should neither be politicised nor trivialised.”
Delivering his sermon on Sunday, Mr Tunde Bakare of the Latter Rain Assembly in Ogba, Lagos, said that some unnamed forces were ”waiting in the wings to create a constitutional crisis” in the event of the passing away of the President.
He said: ‘‘The Presidency is not a birthright or an inheritance handed down from a father to a son; it is a call to serve.’’ It is time for Umaru to go home.
It is better for the President to go back to Katsina and continue to be a lecturer than waiting to create a constitutional crisis in the country”.
Yet, for all the apprehension, Abuja did not shut down just because the President was sick.
As it was clear by Monday that he was alive, the only issue was how the information to the populace was managed.
Meanwhile, latest reports say doctors at the King Fahd Armed Forces Hospital, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, have ordered more tests on President Yar’Adua before he can return to Nigeria.