THOUGHTS ON UMARU MUSA YAR'ADUA
Five weeks ago, when I began the series on power rotation, in which I'd been asking the North to put its best foot forward in 2011, I also promised to punctuate the serials as necessary, if there are compelling national events to comment on. And what event can be more national than the death of a president. This column is usually written on Wednesday mornings, and produced by early evenings of that day. Such was also the practice last week, and by the time President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua passed away in the night, it was too late to change the subject of discourse. But here we are today. 'The sickle of death cuts down the green as oft as the ripe,' (Sir Walter Scott, Old Mortality). Yar'Adua has been cut down by the grim reaper. Was he green at 58? Not quite. Was he ripe? Definitely not.
You may say it was a death long expected, with the man having been mortally sick for upward of 10 years. Yes, when you have diseased vital organs like the kidneys and the heart, death can come at any time. Either quickly, or instalmentally. But then, God still has the ultimate say. Hadn't Yar'Adua lived with the condition since year 2000? Some people could be killed in days, some in weeks, months, and others in years. Umaru Yar'Adua had fought a yeoman's battle, and it was beginning to look like he was a cat with nine lives. As governor in Katsina State, he was said to have been away for more than six months at a time, in the throes of debilitating cocktail of ailments, so much so that his political opponents were already rejoicing. But the man bounced back, completed not just the first term, but also got a second.
However, the great leveller always has its day. For both the green and the ripe. And also for those who are in-between. I think Yar'Adua was in the middle. At 58, he was not quite young, not in full bud, not green. Neither was he also in the stage Shakespeare calls the 'yellow leaf,' sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. A stage you would naturally expect a man to drop anytime, like a dry leaf. But death can be indiscriminate. As James Shirley wrote in Death the Leveller,
'Death lays his icy hands on kings;
Sceptre and crown
Must tumble down,
And in dust be equal made
With the poor crooked scythe and spade.'
As the body of the president was carried out of Aso Rock Villa, into a cargo plane en route Katsina for burial on Thursday last week, the ephemeralness, the transience, the impermanence of it all, came powerfully to me once again. Presidents can die, and, indeed, do die. Just as servants also can, and do die. Death lays its icy hands on all. No wonder death is called the great leveller. It demolishes all walls of partition between the rich and the poor. Between the great and the lowly, the celebrated and the unsung. They all tumble down, and meet the same inevitable fate. Dust thou art, and to dust thou must return. How sobering.
A lot of good things have been said about Yar'Adua since his passage. In fact, too many good things. You would think he was the quintessential Nigerian hero, a paragon of virtues all round. An epitome, exemplar. Yes, the departed was a good man, if you compare him with some self-confessed evil people (geniuses or not). For instance, his immediate predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, told us point blank that he didn't want to be a good man. Those who know the man closely say he often boasts that he is a man who would do you evil, and still stand by, sympathising with you. Of course, Gen James Oluleye, his colleague in the military, described Obasanjo as a man who 'designs good and bad schemes with equal celebrity.' So, we know the evil people that have ruled us, and in comparison, Yar'Adua seemed an angel. But does it justify all the sugaries we have heard about him since his passage? Does it substantiate what the columnist, Okey Ndibe, describes as 'biographical revisionism,' which we have been treated to?
In African culture, we are encouraged not to say ill about the dead. Good practice. No man has immunity from death. You can begin to say evil about a departed, and while the word is still between your lips, you may fall down and die. But is that enough reason to then dress the departed in borrowed robes? Not at all. The way Yar'Adua has been lauded, extolled and acclaimed this past week, you would ask yourself if that was not the same man we had been grumbling about his style of leadership in the past three years. No wonder D.H. Lawrence declared in his classic book, Lady Chatterley's Lover: 'For God's sake, all of you, say spiteful things about me, then I will know I mean something to you. Don't say sugaries, or I'm done.'
By saying only sweet things about Yar'Adua in the last one week, people have been doing the poor man and the country an injustice. He was humble, patriotic, had good intentions for Nigeria, I agree. Yes, Yar'Adua was a simple man, who wielded power without arrogance. He was just like the man next door, despite the enormous powers at his disposal. Kind, humane, not an 'enemy of humanity.' Sure. But we must never forget that he almost mortgaged the future of this country. He held us cabbinned, cribbed and consigned to a slowcoach pace, when for the sake of the country, he could have given up power due to the poor state of his health. Just on Tuesday, I learnt an instructive lesson about how to chronicle history.
Kunle Solaja, editor of our sports publication, Soccer Star, was launching a book he had written on our national soccer team, Super Eagles…Through The Ages. Former national coach, Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, had been called to unveil the book. And in his remarks, he said, 'History is best dressed in nakedness. History embellished is history destroyed.' It can't be truer, and I think that is the way we should see the Yar'Adua years, for the sake of the future of our country. To embellish that era is to lose the vital lessons we should learn from it as a people.
There is a certain pull about power. Obasanjo called it the 'allure of power,' when in 1998, shortly after being released from prison, he was asked if he would succumb to the urge to run for president. Though Yar'Adua wielded power simply, the allure was too overpowering for him. After he had fortuitously completed two terms as governor of Katsina State, he didn't need to have fallen for the trap Obasanjo set for him, inviting him to be president. His health couldn't carry it, and he knew it. While resigning as British Prime Minister on Tuesday, Gordon Brown said only those who have ever held the office know the full 'weight of responsibilities' that go with it. Yar'Adua knew he didn't have the health that could carry such full weight of responsibilities.
But he still fell for the allure of power. And instead of spending his last days peacefully in Katsina, in semi-retirement, or teaching Chemistry as a part-time lecturer somewhere, he submitted his frail shoulders for the overpowering burden of Nigeria. And he had ample opportunity to have shown a clean pair of heels, particularly after he was evacuated to Germany during the campaigns in 2007. I love the way Okey Ndibe put it: 'Who doesn't recall that moment when a mischievous Obasanjo put a call across to a hospitalized Yar'Adua in Germany and asked, 'Umaru, are you dead?' A man who was honest to himself should have answered, 'Not yet, but I'm well on my way. So I quit.'' I think Yar'Adua would have been a greater Nigerian hero if he had thrown in the towel at that stage, rather than consign the country to a slow march for almost three years.
True, if Yar'Adua had been healthier, he would have done a lot more for Nigeria. He had modest successes in bringing peace to the restive Niger Delta, his regime restored dignity to the judiciary by respecting the rule of law, his anti-corruption war was not duplicitous like that of the regime before him. He did quite some good things. But at what cost to the country in terms of time, which they say, waits for no man? In the past three years, we accomplished what could have been done in three months by a person less beleaguered, health-wise. But then, give it to the man. He bore his pains with dignity, with courage. Oh, the pains Yar'Adua must have suffered. Kidneys in trouble. Heart in distress. Many other organs rebelling against the body.
The agony he must have experienced. Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. My heart went out to him many times as he lay supine, being manipulated by power mongers called the cabal, along with an alleged complicit wife. Oh Turai, is it true? Or have you been wrongly maligned and lied against? Maybe, just maybe, one day, I will have the grace to write about Turai. Pretty in a pristine way, devoted to her man till the last. As she walked out of Aso Rock, for the doleful journey to Katsina on Thursday last week, pity welled in my heart for her. Is she Jezebel? Is she a devoted Ruth? We may talk about it some day in future. Poor woman. To think she would now need security clearance to ever enter Aso Rock again, a place where she was the overlord, the royal majesty till last week. This life!
Yar'Adua was ever mindful of his own mortality. 'I am a human being, I can be sick, I can die. I can die tomorrow, I can die next month, I can live till 90,' he had said in a television interview. Good mindset. But if you ask me, I'll also say Yar'Adua was a captive of power. A willing captive. He willingly, voluntarily swallowed the bait Obasanjo put before him. And it meant all the difference between a quiet, peaceful end, and one that was shrouded in a thick pall of controversy.