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Working with President Yar’adua

Segun Adeniyi, former Spokesman to late Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’ Adua gives an insight into the character of the late Nigerian leader who died May 5, 2010

There has been a massive outpouring of tributes to the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua since his passing a few weeks ago. So much so that it is now becoming increasingly difficult for me to recognise the man I served for almost three years. In typical Nigerian fashion, everybody, including those who ‘cabalised’ his last days, is now eulogising the late President. It seems one of our major attributes as a nation is that we are ever generous to, and most often hypocritical about, the dead.

Beyond the familiar graveyard orations, however, the Yar’Adua Presidency, like all previous governments, deserves a rigorous and more honest interrogation so that we can learn useful lessons about the past and secure a good guide for the future. This is an important task which I am sure many Nigerians will take up once the tears are dried and the tempers have simmered. As a front-row witness, I plan to document my own experience and reflections about this period in the next two years when hopefully, I would have the time and the presence of mind to put things in proper perspective.

For now, however, I want to offer a few words about the late Yar’Adua based on my interactions with him as his official spokesman. In all the tributes that have been paid to him, the common thread has been that while he had his personal failings like all mortals, President Yar’Adua exhibited certain attributes uncommon with people who hold leadership positions in our clime, and that made significant difference. These attributes were: humility, integrity and humanity. I can attest that these attributes indeed defined the essential Umaru Musa Yar’Adua.

Though interrelated, these enduring values reinforce one another, and cannot stand alone. As a leader, if you don’t have the first, you definitely cannot have the others. Humility, which Ezra Taft Benson argues is concerned with what is right as distinct from who is right, is the core of those human virtues which work in tandem with other positive character traits. It is therefore no surprise that Yar’Adua was as honest as he was humble and he had nothing but contempt for the primitive accumulation tendencies of members of the Nigerian political elite who place their personal greed above the collective need.

Yar’Adua’s humility was particularly telling because aside his well-heeled family background, he had been the governor of a state for eight years before becoming the President. Many in lesser and similar positions would have been carried away. But President Yar’Adua chose the road less travelled by others. He didn’t allow power to change him.

From the outset, he recognised that a leader must place the system above himself and use power cautiously and only for the advancement of human dignity and society. With the late Yar’Adua, I saw this disposition at play in several instances. For this effort, I will cite only one. Whatever little credit this administration can take for the Niger Delta amnesty process, President Yar’Adua’s personal humility was a critical catalyst. I recall that the whole agenda could have been scuttled from the outset when some hardliners stoutly opposed the idea of releasing Mr. Henry Okah from detention and granting him amnesty. President Yar’Adua never for once agreed with people who argued that it would be demeaning for the President of Nigeria to hold meetings with those they considered “criminals.”

In the course of his dealings with the Niger Delta militant leaders, the late President exemplified the enduring lesson of a Hausa proverb (once shared with me by Second (and Third) Republic Senator Uba Ahmed) that stooping before a dwarf does not cost you your height. Whenever there was a crisis or the likelihood of a crisis, President Yar’Adua would personally call on phone the leader of whichever group was involved or call for a meeting. That explains why Chief Government Ekpomupolo alias Tompolo had very easy access to the late President who also brokered  meetings between the Governor of Rivers State, Mr. Rotimi Amaechi and Mr Ateke Tom just for peace to reign in the Niger Delta.

One of the reasons Mr. Okah bought into the amnesty process was principally due to the disposition of President Yar’Adua in their first encounter. Perhaps only few leaders would have the temperament to absorb what Okah told the President that night about what he described as the “crazy arrangement” in Nigeria vis-à-vis the Niger Delta people.

Rather than express anger, President Yar’Adua assured Mr. Okah that he could understand his rage and pledged that he would redress the wrongs. That parley, brokered by my former boss and mentor, Mr. Nduka Obaigbena, was particularly instructive. Despite the fact that there had been a prior decision that government would not meet with the ‘Aaron Team’ of the Movement for the Emancipation of Niger Delta (MEND), President Yar’Adua eventually acceded to Mr. Okah’s request.

When the late President—with me and Mr. David Edevbie by his side—eventually met with the ‘Aaron Team’, much to the displeasure of some people in government, Nobel Laureate, Professor Wole Soyinka, Admiral Mike Akhigbe and Major General Luke Aprezi (rtd) can attest to the fact that by the time the late Yar’Adua laid his cards on the table, there was pretty little to argue about as it became very clear he had a roadmap towards resolving the Niger Delta problem. Apart from the desire to do what was right, President Yar’Adua held the resolution of the Niger Delta issue very dear because he could see in it enormous potentials for the nation at large.

It is within this context that the current argument about whether or not the ‘Seven-point agenda’ should be reviewed not only begs the question but shows little understanding of what the whole agenda is all about. The ‘Seven-point agenda’ is not an economic blueprint but rather a conceptual framework of the critical areas of our national life that the administration considered of utmost priority. Even at that, President Yar’Adua himself had realised before he died that there was need to focus principally on a few items which would definitely unlock the door to the others. Three were identified: Land Reform, Niger Delta and Power.

On Land Reform, Professor Akin Mabogunje has done extensive work and the Bill is now before the National Assembly. President Yar’Adua said several times with respect to Niger Delta that the amnesty deal was just the easy bit: the foundation for resolving the crisis in an enduring manner. The solution, he believed, would be in empowering the oil producing communities and this informed his decision to direct that ministerial committees be set up to work out modalities for implementing the report of the Special Adviser on Petroleum Matters, Dr. Emmanuel Egbogah. Titled ‘Equity Distribution in Petroleum Administration: Proposal for the Involvement of Host Communities in the Ownership of Petroleum Assets in Nigeria’, the Egbogah report, which seeks to give oil producing Niger Delta communities a stake similar to land owner royalty, was very detailed. Unfortunately that turned out to be President Yar’Adua’s last official engagement as he fell ill only a few days later and travelled to Saudi Arabia. The rest, as they say, is history.  As for power, President Yar’Adua felt it would be delusional to think that electricity could be generated and transmitted on a sustainable basis in Nigeria if resolution of the Niger Delta question remains literally or figuratively in the pipelines, bringing again to the fore his belief about the centrality of the Niger Delta to national development.

Another area where President Yar’Adua’s distinction shone through was his abiding faith in the rule of law. Many in his position would have fancied themselves not just above the law, but as the law itself. For President Yar’Adua however the good society is the one where impunity is a taboo, and where the rights of the rich and the poor are equally protected. On reflection, I believe President Yar’Adua actually understood the seeming intangibles which have actually held us back as a nation with a clear idea of what needed to be done and was ready to chart the course. Today, I can recall the several discussions I had with him on the primacy of rule of law to the development of any society.

For him it was not mere rhetoric. It is indeed to the eternal credit of the respect the late President had for institutions and constituted authority that he never for once dabbled in the affairs of the National Assembly, not even when there was media pressure on him to do so during the Patricia Etteh crisis in the House of Representatives, which the members eventually resolved on their terms. He also stayed away from the internal politics of his party, the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). And he gave unfettered freedom to the judiciary as the last arbiter. But for President Yar’Adua’s unwavering commitment to the rule of law, it is most unlikely that Comrade Adams Oshiomhole would be Edo State Governor today. The same goes for Governor Olusegun Mimiko of Ondo State. And in Anambra State, the recent election would most certainly not have been conducted given the fact that there were people within his party who held on to the belief that they already had a ‘Governor-in-waiting’!

On a personal level, I can also attest that President Yar’Adua was an open-minded leader and a loyal boss. Between April 22, 2007 (when I was first contacted) and May 29, 2007, I turned down the offer to be his spokesman several times and only accepted on May 30 after the decision had been taken out of my hands. Notwithstanding, he was faithful to me, especially at a period when I was considered ‘disloyal’ by some people very close to him! By the warped logic of these political do-gooders, the loyal media aide is the one who makes a nuisance of himself by attacking critics of his principal. For not doing that, there were several reports against me by those who rubbed it in that it was not an accident that President Olusegun Obasanjo picked three kinsmen of his as spokespersons in succession.

There were also other people in government with their power mongering collaborators outside who hated my guts and put pressure on President Yar’Adua to replace me with their own media men. Some did not stop at mere attempts to replace me, I was also considered expendable. Such was the desperation. It is not on record that my predecessors were ever invited for interrogation by the security agencies for just doing their job. In my own case, I endured that humiliation over the controversial Ekiti State re-run gubernatorial election.

In all these situations, President Yar’Adua stood solidly by me, the same way he resisted all the pressure to replace his ADC, Col. Mustapha Dennis Onoyiveta, who got the job purely on merit after a competitive interview conducted by the former Chief-of-Staff, Major General Abdullahi Mohammed (rtd) from a shortlist sent by the Defence Headquarters. That became an issue for those who wanted Mustapha out with the whispering campaign that former President Obasanjo planted him on Yar’Adua. Yet it was clear that Mustapha’s only sin was the little fact that he is an Urhobo man from Delta State and not a Northerner! About some pains in his leg for which he was seeking local medical care, the President immediately called his personal doctor and asked that he should arrange for Matt to travel abroad and he personally paid all the bills.

Another aspect of the man Yar’Adua, which Nigerians did not get to see was his down-to-earth, brutally frank disposition to issues. One morning, as we were leaving the residence for his office, the ADC noticed that the President did not have his Nigeria-lapel pin on. As he attempted to place one on his Agbada, the President turned to us—myself, the Head of Service, Mr. Steve Oronsaye, Matt Aikhionbare, PLO, Habu Habib and the CSO, Yusuf Tilde—and asked cynically: ‘what does this thing really mean? It is not whether we carry the national flag on our head or chest that matters. I wonder why we place too much premium on symbolism in this country when what should inspire us as public officials is that our actions are dictated by public good’. In characteristic style, he challenged us to convince him as to why he must wear the pin and was prepared for a debate. In the end, we managed to convince him to allow the pin to be put in place if only to humour us.

I have fond memories of President Yar’Adua because I interacted so closely with him that even colleagues who initially felt uncomfortable with me could not but notice he enjoyed my company. It got to a point that sometimes when he was alone, they would send for me to go and stay with him. I am one of the few people who could bring out his earthy, humorous nature which he tried very much to suppress. With me, he would laugh because I recognised the fact that while he might have been President, he was first and foremost a human being and I related to him on that score.

While it is true that Nigerians hardly speak ill of the dead, I have received several positive testimonials from people I encountered on the streets in the last few weeks that make me conclude somehow that beyond the crocodile tears and the political tributes, there must have been a genuine affection for President Yar’Adua by most Nigerians and deep sympathy for his personal travails. If only these people had known him up close and if only illness and death had not conspired to rob Nigeria of the freshness and vigour of his humble, honest and humane leadership!

The late president definitely was not the saint some people are trying to make of him. He was a mere mortal who had his faults and weaknesses. But he was also far from being the desperate power-monger that the “cabals” on both sides tried to turn him to in his last days. He was essentially a very good man who had lofty dreams for his country; a man of ideas who, though hampered by ill-health, gave the thankless job of building a good society his very best; a simple human being who refused to let position and power deprive him and others of their humanity.

All said, I am proud to have served my country through the late Yar’Adua. I also feel gratified that I remained faithful to him to his very end. For me, this humane and loyal boss deserved no less. May God Almighty grant him eternal rest. And may He grant his family the fortitude to bear the loss.

•Adeniyi was Special Adviser on Media and Publicity to the late President Yar’Adua