Umaru Yar'Adua: Nigerian President who struggled to tackle the country's social and political problems

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The Independent Online

Umaru Yar'Adua, the first university-educated President of Nigeria, who offered an amnesty to armed militants in the troubled oil-rich Niger Delta region, has died following months of speculation surrounding his health.

Yar'Adua had been suffering from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years, but took a turn for the worse last November when he flew to Saudi Arabia to be treated for heart trouble. He was diagnosed with acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the membrane around the heart. He returned to Nigeria in February but remained too sick to govern and was not seen in public again.

Rumours about Yar'Adua's health had been rife and his prolonged absence had led to protests about the lack of clear lines of authority in Africa's most populous country. This state of limbo, in a country already racked by low-level civil wars over oil and religion, left many worried about the country's direction. In addition, with no centre of authority, a peace plan Yar'Adua had enacted for the violence-plagued, oil-producing south seemed in danger of falling apart. As Yar'Adua had not transferred power and with public fears growing that Nigeria would revert to military dictatorship, the National Assembly reluctantly decided to hand power over to the Vice-President, Goodluck Jonathon.

Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was born in August 1951 into a wealthy political family in the northern Muslim town of Katsina. He attended prestigious schools and was well-educated. In 1975 he gained a BSc Honours degree in education and chemistry from Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria, which he converted to an MSc in analytical chemistry in 1978. Initially he lectured, but in 1983 he decided to become a farm manager in his home state.

Politics, however, was in the blood, and Yar'Adua became involved at local level. His father had been a minister in the first Republic (declared three years after Nigeria won independence from Britain in 1960), and his elder brother Shehu, a senior military officer, had been second-in-command in the 1976-79 military regime of President Obasanjo.

With the death of his brother in detention in 1997 at the hands of the dictator General Abacha, Yar'Adua's already budding political career took off. In 1999, he contested the governorship of Katsina for the People's Democratic Party (PDP), but unlike in 1991, when he lost to President Babangida's ally, he was victorious. He was widely acknowledged to have run the state well and was commended for his lack of corruption, having declared his assets upon taking office, an unusual occurrence in a country where political office is a path to personal enrichment. During his governorship, Katsina joined other northern Muslim states in 2000, and became the fifth state to adopt Sharia, or Islamic law; there are now 12 such states out of 36.

In early 2007 there was some surprise when Yar'Adua was chosen by the then-President Obasanjo as the PDP's candidate for the Presidential elections. There was the feeling that he had chosen him for his own reasons, although it is unclear if he knew about Yar'Adua's medical condition. Nevertheless, Yar'Adua campaigned as a reformist. In April 2007, in what was widely reported as a flawed election, with widespread fraud, intimidation and ballot rigging, Yar'Adua won 70 per cent of the vote. His election was none the less seen as an advance in a vast, populous and resource-rich nation that less than a decade before had been enduring a brutal dictatorship. At his inauguration he promised a long list of reforms including tackling corruption, reforming the inadequate power sector, ending the violence that was crippling the production of oil, Nigeria's principal source of revenue, and ultimately, the electoral system. He was once described as "someone who knew their own mind, despite being a quiet man".

Although some progress was made, with the reversal of some dubious privatisations of state companies, reformists being appointed in the cabinet and corrupt politicians being exposed, his truncated presidency fell short on its promises; early on he was nicknamed "Baba-go-slow". The electricity supply remained, and remains, erratic, the promised electoral reforms evaporated and, despite making initial progress in the troubled oil-rich Niger Delta, the heartland of Africa's biggest oil and gas industry, with an amnesty to armed militants, there are still periodic flare-ups. The well-armed Niger Delta rebels have been fighting government forces over oil profits, which they say are unequally distributed.

The first signs that all was not well with Yar'Adua came in 2008 when he was flown twice to Germany for emergency treatment. With his health deteriorating following his return from Saudi Arabia in February this year, acting President Jonathan assumed executive powers, sacked all cabinet ministers and appointed a team of advisers. The move in effect left the 52-year-old in sole command. Presently, it is unclear if Jonathan, who is from the Christian southern Niger Delta, will run for President next year because of an unwritten agreement in the ruling party that power rotates between north and south. The next four-year term is due to go to Yar'Adua's predominantly Muslim north.

Umaru Yar'Adua, politician; born Katsina, Nigeria 16 August 1951; married 1975 Turai Umaru (divorced; seven children), 1992 Hauwa Umar Radda (divorced 1997; two children); died Aso Rock, Nigeria 5 May 2010.