Olusegun Adeniyi was the former presidential spokesman for the late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua and current chairman of the editorial board of ThisDay Newspapers. In this excerpt from his book – “Power, Politics and Death – A Front Row Account of Nigeria Under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua,” the journalist chronicled some behind-the-scene narration of how the death of Yar’Adua was announced and the intrigues that followed.
‘Segun, where are you?’
Before I could reply, there was a command: “Come straight to the Residence!’
Even though Colonel Mustapha Dennis Onoyiveta, aide de camp (ADC) to President Umaru Musa Yar‘Adua, and I were friends and often took liberties with each other, the tone with which he spoke on that night of May 5, 2010, was rather unusual.
Curiously, I had just left the same Residence (the official home of the president) where I was to keep an appointment with the First Lady, who, as soon as I arrived, was called upstairs. By the time Mustapha‘s call came, I was at my apartment to dismiss the PHCN official I had earlier invited to rectify an electrical fault. While I felt a bit irritated by the commanding tone in his voice, I nonetheless heeded the colonel‘s instruction and returned back to the Residence.
As I entered the Red Carpet (the first living room), a security man said the Chief Security Officer (CSO) to the president had detailed him to ask me to sit down and wait rather than go straight in. This was rather unusual, but then we were going through an unusual period at the villa and in the country.
As a reporter during the military era in the ‘90s and as a former editor of THISDAY, one of Nigeria‘s leading newspapers, I had been an intrepid witness to the never-ending drama of my country in the last two decades. Yet, nothing in my background prepared me for the experience of being the spokesman for a president whom most Nigerians were not sure was still alive, yet sharing the villa with an acting president who was in charge but could not exercise the full power of his office.
As I reflected on this bizarre situation and the drama of the preceding weeks, I saw the CSO open the door, peep into where I was sitting and then close the door again. That just added to the suspense, but after about another two minutes, the CSO opened the door again and this time beckoned me to come.
The moment I walked into the living room of the president, the CSO and the ADC gripped me, each holding me on either arm. My initial thought was that they wanted to play a prank on me. However, as I attempted to shake myself free, the ADC said, “Segun, please, please and please, we are about to tell you something that will shock you, but you have to take it calmly because we are trying to manage the situation. Oga passed away a few minutes ago, and we have immediately alerted the acting president, who will soon be here. Right now, nobody in this house except the First Lady is aware, so please take it like a man.”
I immediately broke down in tears, and I was practically dragged to a seat while the duo continued their movements up and down the stairs. While waiting for the arrival of Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, I thought of Yar‘Adua lying dead upstairs as I reflected on what might have been and the events of the previous eleven weeks since his return from Saudi Arabia.
It took about an hour before Jonathan arrived with a powerful team, which suggested he had called a meeting before coming. With him were Mr. Dimeji Bankole, the House of Representatives Speaker; Mr. Ike Ekweremadu, deputy Senate president; Alhaji Yayale Ahmed, secretary to the government of the federation; Major General Aliyu Mohammed Gusau, national security adviser; and Chief Mike Oghiadome, the principal secretary.
They all greeted the First Lady, offering their condolences. After a few minutes of accepting their commiseration, she stood up from where she sat and beckoned on Jonathan to escort her upstairs to see the remains of the president. There was a slight hesitation by Jonathan. Then he paused and also asked Bankole to join him as they climbed the staircase.
The symbolism of Jonathan going to see the remains of Yar‘Adua was not lost on me. For weeks, I had pleaded several times that they should allow him to see the president, but all my pleas fell on deaf ears. Now he was going to see his dead body. As I surveyed my surroundings, I reflected on the Yar‘Adua years. At a time when the nation needed a president who could take quick, strong, and decisive action, his health problems ensured he could not be fully focused on his job. He was, however, a delightful person to work with, and those who accused him of parochialism based on the few Katsina friends he kept grossly misunderstood him.
For some inexplicable reason, in spite of his elite background, Yar‘Adua‘s network was very limited until he became president. It was said that as governor for eight years, he hardly ever ventured beyond Katsina (his state), Kaduna and Abuja. Outside Nigeria, the only places he visited were Brazil, China, Germany (for his medicals) and Saudi Arabia on spiritual grounds. In fact, his first visit to the United States came in September 2007 when he attended the United Nations General Assembly. This limited understanding of his environment must have contributed to some of the mistakes he made with regard to critical appointments for which he depended mostly on the judgment of other people. Those appointments contributed significantly to the fiasco of his last days.
By the time Jonathan came back downstairs, his countenance had changed. He was evidently shaken (as anybody would be in his situation), but I also realized that power had changed hands. I had been with Jonathan only a few hours earlier to drop my letter of resignation, and throughout our encounter, he cut the figure of a frustrated man.
Now, fate had conspired to resolve the logjam, and he was going to be the president. After waiting for another ten minutes, during which there were informal discussions about Yar‘Adua‘s burial (which had been slated for the next morning) and his own swearing-in ceremony (which some of us suggested should be immediate), Jonathan departed for Akinola Aguda House with his entourage for a meeting on the next line of action.
As soon as they left, the ADC declared that when the family left in the morning, there would be no coming back, which meant that they had to take away whatever belonged to them. He brought in some soldiers, and I watched as the personal effects of the president were removed while the team of local and foreign medical personnel that had done everything to sustain his life worked upstairs to dismantle all the medical equipment.
I stayed around for about an hour and commiserated with the First Lady before I headed back to my apartment to break the news to my wife. For my family too, it was the end of a chapter. Yar‘Adua‘s death that night brought a dramatic end to the political saga in the country. It also released me to make public my resignation and the fact that I was going to Harvard University, where I have been for the last one year.
While it is difficult to write the entire story of the Yar‘Adua administration—or any administration for that matter—in one book, what I have tried to do here is to look at a few of the major national issues that dominated the period he was effectively in office. I also present a diary of events surrounding the health challenges that ultimately cut short his life and presidency.
Culled from “Power, Politics and Death – A Front Row Account of Nigeria Under President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua“