Umaru Yar’Adua, 58; president of Nigeria fought corruption
LAGOS, Nigeria — President Umaru Yar’Adua, long plagued by poor health, has died at age 58, almost three months after his vice president assumed control of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, President Yar’Adua’s spokesman said.
President Yar’Adua died at 9 p.m. yesterday at the Aso Rock presidential villa with his wife, Turai, at his side, Olusegun Adeniyi, presidential spokesman, said, his voice cracking with emotion. Adeniyi did not give a cause of death.
A Muslim, President Yar’Adua will be buried today, Adeniyi said.
President Yar’Adua took office in 2007 in a country notorious for corruption and gained accolades for being the first leader to publicly declare his personal assets when taking office — setting up a benchmark for comparison later to see whether he misappropriated funds. But enthusiasm for his presidency waned as time passed and he made no headway in fighting entrenched corruption.
He had tried to end peacefully an insurgency in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta that had attacked the petroleum infrastructure, allowing Angola to overtake Nigeria as Africa’s number one oil exporter. Those efforts frayed after President Yar’Adua became gravely ill.
President Yar’Adua went to a Saudi Arabian hospital Nov. 24 to receive treatment for what officials described as a severe case of pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart that can cause a fatal complication. He failed to formally transfer his powers to Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, sparking a constitutional crisis in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, with 150 million people.
Jonathan assumed the presidency Feb. 9 after a vote by the National Assembly while President Yar’Adua was still in Saudi Arabia. Lawmakers left open the possibility for President Yar’Adua to regain power if he returned to the country in good health. He returned Feb. 24 but never reappeared in public and did not assume power again.
Charles Dokubo, an analyst at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, said President Yar’Adua would leave a mixed legacy. Dokubo said many would remember how President Yar’Adua never fulfilled his promises of increasing power supplies and fixing the nation’s shaky electoral system.
President Yar’Adua, a soft-spoken former chemistry professor, was propelled into Nigeria’s highest through flawed elections, but it marked the first time a civilian won the presidency from another civilian in a nation once plagued by military coups.
As president, President Yar’Adua was also unable to stem religious violence that has long plagued Nigeria.
The country is split between the Christian-dominated south and its Muslim north. The country’s “middle belt,’’ where dozens of ethnic groups vie for control of fertile lands, has become an epicenter of violence, where more than 500 have died since the beginning of the year in tit-for-tat massacres of Muslims and Christians. Politics, jobs, and land often motivate the killings.
President Yar’Adua was committed to ending the violence in the Niger Delta, where the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta, or MEND, had been attacking oil installations, kidnapping petroleum company employees, and fighting government troops. MEND began its fight in January 2006 to protest the unrelenting poverty of people in the region.
The unrest had cut Nigeria’s oil production by about a million barrels a day. President Yar’Adua started formal peace talks earlier this year with MEND and met with Henry Okah, the group’s longtime leader. The entreaties drew more than 8,000 militants into surrendering their arms as part of a government amnesty program.
“The general amnesty I extended to all militants in the Niger Delta has led to the laying down of arms and a return of peace,’’ President Yar’Adua said in October. But militants later resumed attacks, saying the government had failed to own up to its commitments under the amnesty like sharing the nation’s oil wealth with the delta.
Born into one of Nigeria’s best-known political families in northern Nigeria in 1951, President Yar’Adua earlier worked as a chemistry professor at a university in his home state of Katsina. He became Katsina’s governor and later emerged as the consensus pick among the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party, run by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator.
The 2007 presidential election was meant to end a cycle of military takeovers while cementing democratic rule with Nigeria’s first-ever peaceful transfer of power between civilian rulers. International observers said the vote was rigged. Thugs stole ballot boxes, and electoral officials thumb-printed stacks of voting cards with police looking on. President Yar’Adua wasn’t widely considered to have arranged the stolen vote, however.
“We acknowledge that our elections were not perfect and had lapses and shortcomings,’’ President Yar’Adua said in his May 29, 2007, inaugural address. “I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.’’
That admission alone offered a break from the bluster that characterized President Yar’Adua’s predecessors, including some of Africa’s most famous “Big Men.’’ Many in Nigeria hailed his announcement that he would be a “servant-leader.’’
While a careful approach to governance distinguished President Yar’Adua from his predecessor, it failed to move the machinery of government, and the public soured on the president as electric power remained scarce and blocks-long gasoline queues remained common in Nigeria’s major cities.
Even after President Yar’Adua moved into the presidential palace, Aso Rock, many of his family members continued living in the modest family compound where he was born. He leaves behind his wife and nine children.