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Tribute to Nigeria’s Late President Umaru Yar’Adua

Matthew Hassan Kukah of the Catholic Archdiocese, Kaduna, pays glowing tribute to Nigeria’s Late President Umaru Yar’ Adua

Now that my younger brother, Segun Adeniyi (the elephant hunter) has given us some insights into the Yar’adua persona, some of us who experienced the man from a distance can at least pay our own tributes. I write as an outsider.

Although I had been fascinated by Yar’adua’s entrance into the fray of national politics and the prospects of his Presidency really excited me, we had never really met one on one. I had only spoken to him on the phone once when he was Governor of Katsina in the course of a one-day visit to that town. He sounded quite excited from the other end, invited me to come over to Government house but I told him I was in a hurry and actually on my way to Kaduna. It was getting late, I said and I promised that when next I visited Katsina, I would try to come and say hello formally. He was gracious and thanked me for the call.

Unfortunately, I did not ever visit Katsina again. I followed his Presidential campaign and really did look forward to his being our President. My attraction to the man was based on his antecedents as part of the radical tradition in Northern Nigeria. Once I heard about his association with the teachings of the late Malam Aminu Kano and subsequently Bala Usman among others, I was confident that good things lay ahead and that power politics might have a human face in the course of his administration.

With the elections concluded, we all looked forward to his swearing in ceremony. On my way back from Ogoja where we had gone for the installation of the new Catholic Bishop, I had decided to make a de tour and spend the night in Kwande with my friend, Fr Ben Maigari who had celebrated his silver Jubilee of priestly ordination. At about 10pm, my phone rang. I picked it up and discovered it was my Governor at the time, Alhaji Ahmed Makarfi.

We had barely concluded the pleasantries when he said: To, Father Kukah, ga mu nan zuwa. (Well, Father, we are on our way). Before I could speak, he added: The President-elect is with me here and he said he would like us to come and pay you a courtesy call. Taken aback, I apologized and said I was not in Kaduna but in far away Kwande, in Plateau State.

I told him I was due back the next day, but sounding disappointed, he told me that they would be heading for Abuja the next day. I requested him to please thank the President-elect for the honour and that I wished him all the best in the years ahead. I rehearsed the thoughts again and said, God, President-elect coming to pay me a courtesy call? Someone I had not met? I found it quite humbling and looked forward to a meeting.

The chance to meet him finally came at last. Just before the swearing in ceremony of May 29th, 2007, I had had to cut short a trip to South Africa to return to home to speak at the Peoples’ Democratic Party, PDP retreat. The national event was almost like an official carnival of the ruling party. After my presentation, and as I left the hall, my friend, Dr. Aliyu Modibbo approached me.

After exchanging some pleasantries, he said he came to deliver a message to me to the effect that although he had wanted to listen to me, other engagements had prevented him from coming. However, Dr. Modibbo said, the President elect said he would love to see me. We agreed on the time and I told Dr. Modibbo that I would be at the Guest House to see the President-elect.

I turned up and was met and received by Dr. Modibbo who ushered me in. Alhaji Yar’adua received me very warmly and led me into a private sitting room. He jokingly reminded me that I had promised to visit him in Katsina and also reminded me again of his attempt to visit me with Alhaji Makarfi. I apologized but before I could finish he continued: I am really pleased for a chance to meet you at last. You are looking well and I know that you are a very busy man indeed. I have followed your efforts for our country through your speeches and writings and want to thank you very much. I thank you for making out time to come and see me.

I listened in silence as this great man sounded as if he was about to become the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. He then said he had asked to see me because, first, he wanted to meet me in person. He then said he wanted to see me again because he wanted me to take him through the challenges of the Niger-Delta. It is one of the issues I really want to tackle, he said to me. So, I will appreciate your insights since I know you have a lot of experience in the area. I thanked him but told him that I really did not consider myself an expert on the Niger Delta since my work had been restricted only to Ogoniland.

I then went on to speak for about 10-15 minutes. He listened attentively, asked further questions as to how all this related to other national issues and so on. We chatted for about 30-40 minutes. I was struck by Yar’adua’s humility and ability to listen. As our conversation came to an end, he said to me: Let me give you my telephone number. I know we will have reason to talk again. We exchanged telephone numbers and I took my leave. I never spoke to him on the phone, but I went away convinced that our nation was on the right track.

I was therefore not surprised that he took the Niger so seriously and made the tremendous breakthrough in the Amnesty deal. I had three or so other meetings with him after he re-appointed me to continue as Chairman of the Ogoni-Shell Presidential Initiative. At my last meeting with him, I mulled over his health and wondered how much pain he was going through. I sensed a man in pain, but determined to remain on the saddle not for the power, but to do well for his country.

Tragically, the drama around his health as it deteriorated brought out the best and the worst in us as a people. I marvelled as Nigerians, masking greed, insensitivity and callousness as patriotism, behaved as if ephemeral power and their contracts were more important than the life of a human being.

It was easy to see how the waste and loss of human lives in our society meant very little to us, how our consciences had become dulled by power and greed. It is a mark of the strength and resilience of our fledging democracy that we survived the period of President Yar’adua’s unfortunate health with no visible cracks. His demise has been followed by miracles. May God grant him peace and do great things for our nation.