My head swam last December when a friend drew my attention to the article by another friend, Mahmud Jega, in the Daily Trust in which the writer (Jega) recalled MY experience with Nigeria’s to-be (?) President, Umaru Yar’Adua. Let’s share it again. WARNING: It is rather loooooong!!
Many Sides of Yaradua
By Mahmud Jega
The fourth transformation in five decades of Nigerians’ understanding of the meaning of“Yar’adua” is in the offing. For many generations until the mid-1950s, Yar’adua was synonymous with the old Yar’aduwa quarters in Katsina town. But for 20 years from the mid-1950s, the name was most associated in Nigerians’ mind with Alhaji Musa Yar’adua, the Tafida and later Mutawallen Katsina, the powerful NPC chieftain who was Minister for Lagos Affairs in the First Republic. From 1976 until two weeks ago, most reference to Yar’adua in Nigerian politics and the news media referred to the late Major General Shehu Musa Yar’adua, Tafidan Katsina, Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters in 1976-79 and, more seriously, one of the greatest politicians to walk the Nigerian soil in 1988-97. Now, beginning from yesterday and for the foreseeable future, most references to Yar’adua would refer to Alhaji Umaru Musa Yar’adua, Mutawallen Katsina, Governor of Katsina State until May next year and, most probably, President of the Federal Republic afterwards.
In the wake of yesterday’s rather efficient conclusion of the PDP national convention and his victory over 11 other aspirants in the first ballot, many Nigerians are likely to see Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua as a stooge, who was picked out of the blues, very late in the day, and was railroaded to the nomination with a combination of EFCC threats and other hard tackling of his opponents and other party chieftains. The corollary to that is that, if and when he makes it to the presidency, Yar’adua is expected to reign while Obasanjo and his greedy cabal continue to rule.That is many people’s fear, but for me, having reported on the politics of the Yar’aduas in the last 15 years, the reality could turn out to be very different from the appearance. Many people like to think of Umaru Yar’adua only as General Shehu Yar’adua’s taciturn, soft-spoken, low profile junior brother. Certainly, it is doubtful if Malam Umaru could have achieved so much prominence in politics if he was not the son of Mutawalle Musa and the brother of Tafida Shehu. However, anyone who thinks of Umaru as a passive, pampered passenger on the bull-dozing Yar’adua political train in the last 5 decades has got another thing coming.
In the late 1970s, when General Shehu, as Chief of Staff, was busy meddling in NPN affairs and [according to Alhaji Umaru Dikko] was negotiating to become Shagari’s Defence Minister, Alhaji Umaru was a die-hard PRP supporter in the old Kaduna State, and he built up a strong personal following of his own among zealous PRP cadres. I know this for sure, because in 1990-91, my editors at Citizen Magazine sent me to Katsina many times to report on the heated SDP gubernatorial primaries and the subsequent elections. Unknown to many people outside Katsina, there was a lot of tension within the state SDP, caused by General Shehu seeking the presidency while Alhaji Umaru was seeking the governorship. Ik the party’s elders were more keen on the General’s presidential aspiration, the younger, rank-and-file members were much more keen on Alhaji Umaru’s guber ambition. They said if one of them must give up, it was the General who should give up. Most of them were old PRP men who couched their position in ideological terms, but their most important reason must had been that a governor is nearer to them than a president would be.
Besides, they told many stories about Alhaji Umaru’s extreme dynamism in politics. Unlike the General, who mostly operated in smoke-filled board rooms, Alhaji Umaru was a tireless grassroots mobiliser in those days, who easily outpaced all his coterie of zealous campaign workers. I reported in Citizen that time a story I picked up about how Umaru led one 72-hour non-stop operation to visit every hamlet in one remote corner of Katsina State. At about 4 o’clock in the morning on the third day, according to the late Alhaji Ali Ruwa, with the campaigners near collapse, they pleaded with Umaru to end the tour because the only hamlet they had not visited had only a dozen people. But the SDP candidate said he must visit it, and he ploughed through the sand in the night, alone, while the rest of the team sat down to rest. He had not slacked a bit by 1998, when PDP was formed. That year, I reported in the New Nigerian Weekly about the gruesome one-month operation leading to the formation of the K-34 organisation. Some of the participants told stories of how Umaru Yar’adua led them to visit almost every important political figure in any locality throughout Katsina’s 34 local governments, thousands of people in all, often going for days without sleep. In the end, he put together the powerful K-34, which teamed up with Alhaji Lawal Kaita’s PDM to form the state PDP, and to overwhelm it. An interesting coincidence in this story was that it was General Aliyu Mohamed Gusau who, not long after Abacha died in 1998, told Alhaji Umaru to prepare to reclaim the gubernatorial mandate that he controversially lost to NRC’s Alhaji Saidu Barda in 1991. There is no doubt that Yar’adua, not Barda, won that election. Don’t forget that the election petitions tribunals in 1992 admitted that the vote tally was falsified in one local government, corrected it and lowered Saidu Barda’s winning figure to only a few thousand. The only reason why the whole result was not upturned was because when Umaru’s lawyer Chief G.O.K. Ajayi applied to contest the results of two more local governments, the panel said he did not so apply before the deadline.
In any case, a year later, I personally overheard two Katsina NRC chieftains arguing about who claims the credit for rigging Barda into power. At issue was Governor Barda’s heavy political dependence in those days on Alhaji Wada Nas. So one of the NRC men said, “Barda listens to Wada Nas more than us because he thinks it was Wada who rigged the elections in Funtua and earned victory for him. What he does not understand is that we were the ones who actually did the rigging in Funtua, not Wada”.
Last week, Umaru Yar’adua made a statement during a campaign visit to Damaturu. He quoted the Qur’an and said, “Allah gives power to whom He wants at the time He wants”. It is a favourite phrase of his. In the course of an interview in 2001, when I asked him about the 1991 elections, Umaru Yar’adua said, “In 1994, my daughter was admitted to the University of Maiduguri, so I took her to Maiduguri and stayed overnight in Alhaji Maina Ma’aji Lawan’s house. [Maina won election as governor of Borno in 1991, on SDP’s platform, the same time that Umaru was defeated]. Something happened in the house that day that made me to wake up in the middle of the night and offer two raka’ats’ special prayer to Allah, to thank Him for not allowing me to win the election of 1991”. What was it that he saw, Alhaji Umaru refused to say. Someone should ask him again before he disappears into the State House.
When he finally became governor of Katsina in 1999, Umaru Yar’adua promptly introduced his rather severe sense of humility, simplicity and openness to the state’s governance. I know, because in 2002, he hosted us to a dinner at the Government House. We were served plain white rice with two pieces of meat, and I could not help thinking that the food in my own house was tastier than the governor’s food. The following day, when I interviewed him for two hours at his official residence, there was power failure. To my surprise, no standby generator was started, and both the governor and myself were sweating profusely as we did the interview. At one point, Alhaji Umaru was so drenched in sweat that an aide handed him a handkerchief.I therefore seized the opportunity to ask him why he had no generator, why he was seen at the Friday mosque praying under a tree and not inside the mosque, near the Emir of Katsina, why his food was not tasty, and why he was seen driving a car and stopping by the roadside to buy a cigarette. Alhaji Umaru gazed at me closely, perhaps wondering if I was as foolish as I looked. Of course he knew me a bit, because in 1995, I was the editor of the Sentinel magazine when our publisher, General Shehu Yar’adua was arrested by Abacha. Umaru Yar’adua then took over overseeing the magazine for a few months, before it collapsed.
Anyway, he gave an answer that I reflected on for some time and which, when it was published, drew several remarks on the internet. He said, “You see, I have been praying under that tree for the last 18 years, and I am not about to change now just because I became the governor. As for the other things you mentioned, my concern is not really for myself, but for women and the children. I do not want them to get used to something, only to lose it some day. As for me, even if I wake up tomorrow and there are no cars or anything, I can adjust, but women and the children find it very difficult to adjust to such changes. This is what makes many public officers to steal money in order to be able to maintain such facilities for their wives and children when they are no more in office”.
He did many other things, such as forcing the state Finance Ministry to reveal its accounts on radio and television every month and to listen to public comments on it. In 1999, Umaru Yar’adua made public his declaration of assets; I remember he mentioned a house in Katsina and another in Kaduna that were both given to him by his senior brother.
It was around that time, in August 1999, when we were part-time research assistants at the Shehu Yar’adua Centre, then based in Kaduna, that Malam Ibrahim Sheme told me the story of what happened when center’s director Jackie Farris gave him thecentre’s cheque book to take to Governor Yar’adua in Katsina with a request for him, as aco-signatory, to sign “two or three” blank cheques so we could be paid. It must had been traumatic for Alhaji Umaru, to be asked to sign blank cheques. He silently pushed away all the files on his desk, began to furiously sign the cheque leaves until he finished the whole book, then turned over the last leaf and said, “Is that all?” He then pushed the book back to Sheme.
In Katsina in those days, Umaru Yar’adua also began the controversial policy of accumulating money in state government coffers before any contracts were awarded. For nearly a year into his rule, he did not initiate any projects, saying he must have the money in hand to pay first. Of course some people alleged that he was only accumulating the money so as to shore up Habib Bank’s reserves. When I interviewed him about this in 2002, he said it was because governments in Nigeria had greatly helped the spread of dishonesty in the society by not living up to their own obligations. He said if government signed a contract with a citizen, he did his own part of the bargain and government failed to pay him in time, it sent a very bad signal throughout the society for others to follow. Hence his resolve to award contracts only when he accumulates the money to pay. That is why, during this PDP campaign, I saw some Yar’adua ads saying KTSG has N6 billion in its coffers today.
Still, when he finally started to embark on projects, he did some wonderful ones, especially in the educational sector. An NTI Kaduna review team that inspected educational facilities built in Katsina under Yar’adua flatly stated that they were amazed by what they saw and that it was the best in Northern Nigeria. That’s in one sector; I don’t know about any others. Yar’adua often has some down-to-earth explanations about projects he embarks on. In 2001, when he rebuilt one broken bridge without repairing the road that led to it, he said it was because all his predecessors said they could not repair that road because of the cost of doing the bridge. He therefore resolved, he said, to do the bridge, so that some future governor would have no excuse not to do the road!
I am not sure that Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua has sustained the very high moral and ethicalstandards that he set for himself and for Katsina State nearly eight years ago. I have not been visiting or reporting from Katsina in recent years, and some of the stories coming out of there are not sweet. Let’s mention two. Many Katsinawa tell stories about some of the business moguls very close to Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua, and they are controversial, to say the least. He also got very negative publicity in recent weeks inthe manner he handled the state’s PDP governorship primaries. Yar’adua at firstsupported, then unceremoniously dumped Speaker Aminu Bello Masari, who is very similar to Alhaji Umaru in simplicity, humility and relative honesty. Was it an order from Obasanjo, as many people now allege?
Anyway, when all is said and done, many Nigerians are not going to vote for Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua because of his own personal qualities and weaknesses, but according to their perception of whether he will be an Obasanjo front. Which is just as well, for when the Yorubas rose in unison and rejected Chief Obasanjo’s presidential aspiration in 1999, they did not do so because they thought the man had no qualities, but because Northerners selected him. Obasanjo did not turn out to be a Northern stooge. With luck, if Alhaji Umaru Yar’adua also makes it to the State House, he may not turn out to be an Obasanjo stooge.