Reminiscence On President Umar Musa Yar’adua (1951-2010) And The Quintessence Of Patriotic Matyrdom

By Dr Godknows Igali

It is simply implausible but real, that ten odd years have passed, exactly on last 5th day of May, 2020, since Nigeria found itself in the deep melancholy of laying to rest its 13th President, Umar Musa Yar’Adua. He was overtly pious, humble and was rather beatific. He called himself a Servant Leader, an euphemism that forebode his short, but impressive high national service. But then, he was fifth on the line of former leaders of the country to have died while in active service.

In retrospect, Nigeria has had a fair share of deaths in office. For instance, though furtive, but arguably by natural happenstance was the passing of the begoggled Head of State, General Sani Abacha on June 8, 1998, whose legacy remains an open debate. But unknown to many Nigerians, Gen. Abacha is still, also closely cherished not only on the streets of Kano and Maiduguri, but in some other parts of the country, especially places where he created six new states on October 1, 1996. Furthermore, but on a more sad note, some of our leaders fell by the heinous design of human hands. That is why the memory of the horrific loss of pioneer Prime Minister, Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa on that cold morning of January 15, 1966 is still poignant. In his reflections, Chief Aja Nwachukwu, one of Balewa’s closest political allies and pioneer Minister of Education, who established University of Lagos and initiated Federal Government Colleges, is quoted as describing Balewa as “a living saint on whom there was a permanent shining light”.

No less do many older Nigerians recall with pain the presumptive vengeful murder of first military ruler, General Thomas Umunna Aguiyi-Ironsi on July 29, 1966. He, along with people such as Ghana’s first Military Head of State,General Joseph Ankrah, were amongst the first formally trained and brightest military officers ever produced in Africa. Next on the line was General Murtala Muhammed, the 4th Head of State, whose young life was shockingly brought to an abrupt end by military coupist while driving to work in the morning of February 13, 1976. Forthright and charismatic, he is reputed globally for the audacity in calling off American bluff, regarding decolonization in Africa, through his speech “Africa has come of age, it is no longer under the orbit of any extra continental power” delivered at the OAU Extraordinary Summit of January 11, 1976.

But Musa Yar’Adua was different. More than any other of his ilk, most citizens who saw through his heart, bewailed his exit with unparalleled agony. A decade after, so fittingly, Nigerians, led by President Muhammadu Buhari have not forgotten that he was “unarguably a patriot” leaving a legacy of “honest and sincere service to the country”, with a “passion for the masses” and a mien of “patience and gentle nature”.

The script of President Yar’Adua’s life is defined in his impressively rich family pedigree. Unlike the usual cliché of most leaders coming from very humble beginnings, including one raised in a home of cocoa farmers or another going through early education, barefooted, Umaru Yar’Adua came from a privileged ancestry. His grandfather, whose name Umaru and latter title he inherited was a senior titled person in Katsina Emirate Council. With the title of Muatawallin, he was the traditional Minister of Finance of the Emirate and an influential member within the inner circle of the ruling class.

Counted amongst the original “Seven Hausa States”, Katsina, his hometown competed with Kano, Zaria and Daura for pre-eminence in the course of history. At a time, it even became the nerve centre of commerce and enterprise in Hausaland. With the Fulani conquest of the city in the 1800s and later British colonial rule, the city again became a hub of knowledge and scholarship, boasting of the first Middle School in the entire Northern Nigeria.

Umaru’s father, Musa Yar’Adua, who is actually the patriarch of the modern Yar’Adua clan, was himself of Katsina royalty as his mother, Mallama Binta was a sister of Emir Muhammadu Dikko, who ruled the emirate from 1906-1944. At a time when western education was still viewed with great suspicion in Northern Nigeria, Pa Yar’Adua attended the Katsina College, now known as Barewa College, Zaria. The school was actually established in 1921 by Hugh Clifford the successor to Lord Luggard as Governor General of Nigeria. It was latter to train the very first set of intelligentsias from Northern Nigeria, including Sir Tafawa Balewa, Sir Ahmadu Bello, Premier of Northern Nigeria, Shehu Shagari, former President of Nigeria, etc. His father, one of the most central figures in the closed fraternal political clique of Northern Nigeria, easily inherited the title of Mutawallin at the home front in Katsina and secured a seat in Federal Parliament and Minister for Training and Nigerianization and later Minister for Lagos, between 1957 to 1966.

The Yar’Adua children, therefore unlike their other many counterparts, grew up in the plush uptown ambience of Lagos and had a broad calling to public service. But growing up, Umaru Yar’Adua still had to take his place in the queue with his bigger brother, General Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, who became the defacto Vice President during the time of Gen Olusegun Obasanjo’s (OBJ) period of military rule in the national limelight. His elder brother later became a prominent political leader, and partner of many, including Chief MKO Abiola, Former PDP Chairman of Board of Trustees, Chief Tony Anenih, Former Senate President, Dr Chuba Okadigbo and former Vice President of Nigeria, Atiku Abubakar, Amb Babagana Kingibe, former Lagos State Governor, Bola Tinubu, Secretary to Federal Government, Boss Mustapha, former Information Minister, Prof Jerry Gana, etc

Umaru Yar’Adua completed his tertiary education, between 1975 to 1983 up to Masters level in Chemistry at Ahmadu Bello University, Nigeria’s premier tertiary institution in Northern Nigeria, of which his father played a role in its establishment in October, 1962. For a man who devoted his life to the classroom at various tertiaries levels after his educational training, it would be fitting to recall that since after the establishment of University of Ibadan in 1948 by the colonial administration, such tertiary institutions did not exist in the rest of the country. It is against this backdrop that the then colonial administration instituted a Commission headed by Cambridge University educationist, Sir Eric Ashby (the Ashy Commission) in 1959 to identify the needs of Nigeria in post-secondary school and higher certificate education over the next twenty years. The report of the commission was submitted in September 1960.

The report recommended new universities for the two regions and another for Lagos, the federal capital, even though the minority report insisted on the western region also having an additional university. But in real terms, the regional governments themselves, especially the north which had trailed other parts in educational development had done their own works. Thus ABU, which for over 50 years produced most university graduates from the north, like President Yar’Adua, along with University of Nigeria, Nsukka, (founded in 1955 but took off on October 7, 1960), Obafefmi Awolowo University, Ile Ife (formerly University of Ife), established in 1961, but took off on September 22, 1962 and the University off Lagos, also founded in 1962.

A thoroughly bred person, which unintendedly prepared him for higher national service, a detour from education saw him in active and top corporate level private sector engagement, covering agriculture, banking and finance, construction, media and telecommunications, etc. Although, these were mostly family businesses, they were key players in vital sectors of the national economy and he was the Chief Executive Office.

Although his family background was very conservative and part of northern Nigerian political oligarchy, his gradual entry into partisan politicking while still in his teaching years at various Colleges of Education and Polytechnics was a deviation to the radical left then headed by Mallam Aminu Kano. He therefore began as a strong grassroot mobilizer for the Peoples Redemption Party (PRP), which Aminu Kano formed in 1978 when Nigeria was returning to democratic rule after 9 years of military rule. The ideals of PRP were socialism and social liberalism in contradistinction to the more popular National Party of Nigeria (NPN), which was, as it were, a resurrection of the defunct Northern Peoples Congress. His father, Pa Yar’Adua was a founding member of NPC and NPN, becoming National Vice Chairman of the latter.

A midway political relief between extreme left and right came Umaru Yar’Adua’s way when his elder brother, Gen Shehu Yar’Adua, now retired honourably from military career, hitherto predominantly conservative moved to the centre left. Umaru Yar’Adua was a delegate at the 1988 constituent Assembly and began working closely with his elder brother with a centre left ideological outlook. Under the watchful eyes of the then President, Ibrahim Babangida’s political experiment (1989-1993), the older, Gen Yar’Adua led his younger brother and other political associates earlier mentioned to form leading centre left political groups as Peoples Front to join forces with other left leaning groups producing the Social Democratic Party (SDP).

However, Umar Yar’Adua’s incursion into state politics as a Governorship Candidate under the SDP, was met with defeat. The reasons for this were not far-fetched as Katsina State and many parts of northern Nigeria were still predominantly conservative. The candidate of the Babangida’s experimental rightist party, National Republican Convention (NRC), Saidu Bada defeated him. He had to wait another seven years, especially after the tragic loss of his elder brother Gen Yar’Adua in 1997, to join in forming the political groups known as K34, G34 and Peoples Democratic Movement (PDM). These later merged with others groups to become the People Democratic Party in June 1998. Now back to a more conservative platform, it was easier for him to secure the gubernatorial ticket of the PDP, then won the election and served as Governor of Katsina State for two full terms, from 1999 to 2007.

Umaru Yar’Adua’s tenure as Governor left the greatest impact in not only Katsina, but he was arguably the most outstanding of his peers in Nigeria. His prioritization of education though not surprising, given his background led to the building of a State University, Polytechnics and focus on girl-child education. He also embarked on massive physical infrastructural development, including rural infrastructure, housing infrastructure, and a modern airport in the state capital. His government was also known for its knack for transparency and accountability. Unlike in the rest of the country where successors to governors in 2007 were in the sing-song of “meeting an empty treasury”, his successor Ibrahim Shema eulogized the deluge of unspent billions of public funds in the state.

Despite his sterling performance as a state governor and his political antecedents, he remained relatively unknown and evasive of national political grandstanding. As President Obasanjo was winding up his eight years tenure as a democratically elected President, many of the nation’s most popular names in politics, including former military rulers and several governors of bigger and richer states, indicated interest in the office of the president much early. However, Umaru Yar’Adua, with obvious nudge and encouragement by OBJ, won the PDP’s nomination in November 2006,and was elected in 2007 as President, along with Dr Goodluck Jonathan (GEJ), an equally, less known Governor of Bayelsa State as Vice President.

Many have suggested that OBJ was largely influenced by the fact that, Umaru was the younger brother of his long-time friend and ally, Shehu Yar’Adua, who played major role in stabilizing his military Government after the brutal murder of General Murtala Muhammed. However, the superior argument, which OBJ himself has alluded to, tacitly, was the fact that Umaru Yar’Adua, stood out amongst the generation of governors who took over power from the military under the Fourth Republic. This was soon to prove itself as his presidency, which brief was marked with phenomenal initiatives.

When Umaru Yar’Adua came to office, he referred to himself as a “Servant Leader”. During his stay in office, he tried to postulate on what he meant, but in synopsis, it encompassed service delivery, that is, people centred, people oriented and welfare focused leadership. One writer recently described this as “the idea that you should be willing to support the greater good even if it means temporarily sacrificing yourself or your ideals. It embraces the concept that meeting the needs of others is what allows communities and businesses to reach their full potential”. The truth is that this creed of political mantra had always existed in political and religious thought. In the country’s two dominant religions; Christianity and Islam, Lord Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad, professed and taught amply on self-abasement and self-abnegation leaders and demonstrated it amply.

Many other political leaders like the great Mahatma Ghandi, Dr, Martin Luther King showed examples of such leadership. But Umar Yar’Adua, gave it a national focus, national ideal and a national philosophical and psychological rallying cry for development. This was the ethical catchcry which Umaru Yar’Adua stood for despite his health challenge for much of the period of his presidency, which he pursued with idyllic but unrestrained passion.

Coming after eight epic years of OBJ’s active engagement in governance, the arrival of the less experienced or bullish Umaru Yar’Adua left many conjectures as to his direction of social and economic policy. However shortly after taking over on May 29, 2007, he enunciated his Seven Point Agenda, encapsulating the most critical burdens which Nigerians faced and to lay the start of the journey towards making the country among the 20 largest economy in the world by the 2020. These rather self-explanatory areas were:
I) Power and Energy increase, ii) Land Reforms and access to Home Ownership; iii) Food Security for all through massive Agricultural investment iv) Education for all and Human Capital Development; v) Critical Infrastructure Development, especially, road, rail and air transportation; vi) Wealth Creation and Employment; and vii) National Security and Peace in the Niger Delta

Beside these, President Yar’adua embarked on massive Electoral Reform by inaugurating the Chief Justice Muhammad Uwais Electoral Reform Committee, which submitted its report on December 11, 2008. The 22 prominent member Electoral Reform Committee came up with profound recommendations to ensure credible and peaceful election in the country.

During the period of the campaign for the 2007 election, concerns about the integrity of the health of the leading Presidential Candidate, Umaru Yar’Adua, became an issue of public concern. In one instance, OBJ was left stranded on the campaign rostrum, as his preffered candidate, could not show up while the klieg lights were on. Accordingly, from the day he took-over the reigns of power, it was obvious that the President had grave health challenges. However, what surprised most Nigerians and members of the international community was the unusual commitment and devotion he dedicated to his duties, despite his obviously frail conditions of health.

He kept a very active line of activities and never skipped an official engagement. Close aides attested that he would be the last to leave the office and would continue on his desk at the official residence by burning the midnight oil. He insisted on being on top of every issue and wanted to ensure, even against negative circumstances to accomplish all his electoral campaign commitments and the content of the Seven Point Agenda. As a Servant Leader, he was resolved, at times, almost unable to speak audibly to lead from the front. I recall on a personal note, that while accompanying a foreign President to see him in early 2009, the former, a lady, with motherly courage had politely suggested, “Mr President, don’t you think you need to take a bit of rest”, to which he replied, “I am already resting enough”.

Like sacrificial lamb, he saw the beckoning of the final hours, but insisted on serving his country. Alas, on a faithful day in November 21, 2009, yours truly while vising Nigeria on diplomatic consultation, away from the creeping cold of Stockholm, took time to accompany the then Vice President, GEJ to Kaduna to commission a new production line of Peugeot Auto(Hajia) mobile. On return at about 5:00pm, the Vice President received a call to see the President immediately. The rest of the story, yet to be fully recounted by direct witnesses was that a portentous flight carried away the ill and physically overstrained President of Africa’s biggest nation to Saudi Arabia, that evening. Of course, at the destination, the forced rest which he had continuously refused to take in Abuja was dutifully imposed for at least five months. As the clock of life’s journey ticked unhinged, the more ominous return home was for another forced rest before the ultimate final departure, which even the unfeigned love of his dearest better half, First Lady Hajia Turai or matriarchal shield of Mama (Hajia) Aya Dada could not stop.

Going forward, after having dinner with the Acting President, GEJ at 6:00 pm on that ill-fated evening and exchange of parting pleasantries for the day, yours truly took leave to retire, only to receive a call at about 8:30pm: “Ambassador, come immediately”. The journey to Aguda House, took less than five minutes from location, only to meet in place, all the big names, General T. Y. Danjuma, Chief Tony Anenih, etc all in pensive mood. Then the whisper from the Chief of Staff, Mike Oghiadhome “our dear President is gone. Go with Oronto Douglas to somewhere quiet and prepare a solemn speech and bring it back before midnight, oga is in a very sad mood, cannot see anybody apart from these elders”.

Those are the hackneyed words of 35th American President, John F Kennedy. He had earlier said at another occasion, that “Do not pray for easy lives, pray to be stronger men…..”Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other…. “Life is never easy. There is work to be done and obligations to be met—obligations to truth, to justice, and to liberty”. Such an allegory for a man who like Yar’Adua embarked on altruistic policies which he knew would displease several sections of his country and may bring hurt and personal pain; yet he did not buckle and paid the supreme price.

1963 when JFK died to 2010 is 47 years. But the parallels of Umaru Yar’Adua’s life and service and that of J. F. Kennedy are similar. Although one died of natural causes and the other fell due to the devious designs of men, they were both born into wealth and privileged status, but beckoned unwaveringly into public service. They both saw death, the tolling bells of mortality echoing loudly around them, but sacrificially worked for the common good till the very end.

After everything, the question is, what is life all about if not to be lived for the common good when the transience of human existence is so real? Obviously both men could not accomplish all that they had set ahead of them. Kennedy wanted an America where color, race and creed would be of minimal relevance in social insertion and public life. He started a revolution, which eventually saw to the emergence of Barrack Obama, son of a Black African Muslim, becoming the 44th President of the United States of America, so many years after he passed on. Yar’Adua’s various projects on leadership, electoral reform and the Seven Point Agenda, remain the focus of succeeding governments, rebranded and repackaged in various forms. For one, his Amnesty Programme on the Niger Delta, though only partially implemented remains the cornerstone for peace in the region.

Amongst the country’s thirteen Heads of State so far, his tenure was amongst the shortest; but his impact and remembrance are monumental as is the case of the great martyrs who stood to profess their ideal in the face of deafening cruelty of life. He will always remain in the hearts of succeeding generation as the truest of humankind.

Igali, an award-winning author, is a Career Diplomat and Administrator