Editor's note: Sokari Ekine is freelance researcher, writer and a social justice activist with a multidisciplinary background in human rights, LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) and gender issues in Africa, education and social technology. She has worked in education as well as on several online publications and is author of Black Looks blog . She was invited to write a blog specifically for our readers on a subject of her choice.
After a protracted illness, Nigeria's President, Umaru Yar'Adua finally died aged 58 on the 5th May 2010. He was buried the following day according to Muslim rites. Yar'Adua's death brings to an end a long and bizarre saga of a "disappeared" president which began on the 23rd November 2009. That day was the last time he was seen in public including senators, governors and other government officials.
The Back Story
President Yar'Adua was elected in 2007 under a cloud of vote-rigging allegations as well as rumours of kidney disease (and even at one stage a rumour that he was dead). A quiet and honest man, there was hope his presidency would be different but this turned out to be yet another disappointment, though for different reasons. This time it was his lack of action and inability to make decisions, coupled with an overpowering air of secrecy around his health. Not long after he took office rumours once again began to spread about various illnesses - a heart condition known as pericarditis as well as kidney problems. The rumours were reinforced by his constant travel overseas for medical treatment and the withering away of his body as he appeared to get thinner and thinner, shorter and shorter - seemingly disappearing before our eyes.
The Middle Story
On the 20th November, the President complained of chest pains and on 23rd November he boarded a plane to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Nigerians were told he walked onto the plane, but few actually saw the President leave except for his wife and a few military personnel, including the flight crew. Constitutionally (Section 145) Yar'Adua should have informed the Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathan and the National Assembly in writing that he was going to be out of the country and would be undergoing medical treatment. He did not. Following pressure from pro-democracy movements - including the media, Nigerian bloggers and online news sites - lawyers submitted a case to the High Court calling for Yar'Adua to step down as President or at least hand over his powers to the Vice-President, who would become acting president, as required by the Constitution. This was followed by a further submission on the 5th January but the courts ruled in favour of the President. A series of demonstrations in Nigeria, Europe and the U.S. called for his resignation and the installation of the VP as Acting President. On the 12th January, the President supposedly gave an interview with the BBC Hausa Service saying that he would soon return. To this day we do not know for sure whether it was him or not. Either way the question is why did he not give the interview to one of the many Nigerian media organizations?
In February, 17 media organizations and newspapers issued a joint statement calling for the impeachment of the President if he did not sign the necessary hand-over documents within 7 days.
"The stakeholders hereby demand that the president cede power to his deputy or resign within seven days . . . If he fails to take these obvious constitutional steps . . . the National Assembly should commence impeachment proceedings against the president for endangering the country."
Remember now, no one had seen or heard from Yar'Adua himself though there were muted claims about his condition and his wife constantly reported his health was improving and he would soon return. In the end, rather than impeach the President, the National Assembly voted for Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan to become acting president and he took office on 10th February. Even after this there were various reports that Yar'Adua would appear here or there on such a date and that various religious leaders had been to see him - though Nigerians by this time no longer believed these stories. Many in fact thought he had died months ago - after all he had disappeared for four-and-a-half months.
Two weeks after Jonathan was installed as Acting President, Yar'Adua returned to Abuja, Nigeria's capital, in the dead of the night of the 24th February in a secluded part of the airport. The plane landed and the President and his wife were escorted by a contingent of military officers to the presidential palace at Aso Rock. No one was to see the President, including Goodluck Jonathan. The nation was held to ransom by the President's wife Turai Yar'Adua and their minders. Rumours of coup plots, civilian plots, in-fighting and bargaining filled Nigeria's news media (and everyone's dinner conversation). However towards the end of April, interest had begun to wane as the Acting President appointed his own cabinet, disbursed budgets and met with the foreign press. In other words, as he became more "presidential," people cared less about Yar'Adua. And after all, elections are due in June next year and the country needs and wishes to prepare for them.
The End Story
It almost feels like an anticlimax. The disappeared President finally disappears for real. I feel like I am writing this out of "duty" rather than any real sense of sadness or loss, but we are not supposed to speak ill of the dead unless they were seriously wicked.
But it isn't over yet. For the past four-and-a-half months, the interests of the Nigerian people and the office of the President have been put aside in favour of the personal health of one man. This was wrong. There are still questions to be answered though knowing Nigeria's propensity for keeping things secret, it is doubtful we will ever know. I can already hear the cries of "the man is dead lets - let's move on." But if we never know the truth then how can we prevent it from happening again? The question I want answered is who is responsible for Yar'Adua's disappearance and for keeping him on ice (metaphorically speaking) all these months. How did this happen? We are a democracy where a constitution and legal processes exist. Everyone in power just sat around for most of the time and did nothing. Even after Jonathan was sworn in as Acting President we were not told the truth about the President who for purposes of governance was dead anyway.
From beginning to end, Yar'Adua's presidency has been a farce - a comedy of errors and lies. I don't doubt that he was a decent man and tried his best but was he ever in control? Now Jonathan is President - this is his chance to ensure that all the Amnesty promises made to the people of the Niger Delta are begun in earnest and structures for monitoring corruption of everyone involved, are put in place.
The Constitutional Amendment
During his absence, the Senate and House of Representatives, with the support of state governors and a diverse group of Nigerians, issued separate motions declaring Vice-President Jonathan the Acting President. The move was well received by many but its legality was soon questioned. The issue of legality fueled a push for the amendment of certain sections of the Constitution, a review that was previously stalled for over a year.