Nigeria: Suntai and the Amunibuni Syndrome By Olusegun Adeniyi
By Olusegun Adeniyi
“Amunibuni ewure ibiye. Ibiye f’oju otun, ewure re fo t’osi”—Yoruba idiom
Ever since the ailing Governor of Taraba State, Mr Danbaba Suntai, was brought back to the country under controversial circumstances, there is hardly any commentary on the issue that would not involve allusion to the
late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua–a development for which the Yoruba people have a name: ‘Amunibuni’. While the name conveys very deep meaning, it is easily explained in the idiom with which I opened the page. Crudely interpreted, it means if a goat is blind on the left eye and its owner is blind on the right eye, any discussion of the goat as one-eyed would always bring into focus the condition of the owner.
It is understandable, especially against the background that between November 2009 and May 2010, our country went through a serious political crisis on account of the illness of my late boss and the way it was (mis)managed. Apparently because of that, I have received several mails in recent days from people who sought to know my views on the situation in Taraba; despite the fact that I had actually intervened on the issue at a time the crisis was just brewing. While I take responsibility for the personal choices I made as spokesman to the late President Yar’Adua, especially during the course of his protracted illness, I also accept in good faith all the criticisms that come my way, given the way I might also have reacted if someone else were in my shoes.
As I watched the debate in the British parliament on the proposed attempt to wage another war in Syria last week, I paid particular attention to the intervention by Mr. Jack Straw who was the British Foreign Secretary at the time and had made a case for the war in Iraq. This time, Straw is in the opposition and has strong reservations about invading Syria. But he had a rough time from his colleagues who heckled him about Iraq. Notwithstanding that he kept repeating that he would rather deal with the current issue, there is no doubt that he was scarred by that experience, just as the British people are. It is a burden I can relate to. And for those who may not have read my book on the Yar’Adua years, I enclose below chapter 14 titled “Like a Thief in the Night” which captured the drama of the day the late president was brought back to the country from Saudi Arabia under the cover of darkness.
Unfortunately, the current tragedy in Taraba is not only a sad reminder of that tragic chapter in our history, it is a clear indication that we hardly learn from our experience. For instance, the airport scene on the day Suntai arrived the country pointed to the fact that the principal concern of those close to him was to play some sinister politics even at the expense of his personal welfare. Rather than put him on a wheel chair, they made the ailing governor to go through what was evidently a harrowing and humiliating experience that could have ended in catastrophy. Again, it is very obvious that the Suntai who many Nigerians saw on television being virtually carried from the aircraft with a vacant look on his face could not be the person making all the decisions being announced by his audacious spokesman.
It is indeed instructive that just about 11 weeks ago, on June 13 to be specific, I wrote an article here titled, “Power Struggle in Taraba State” where I predicted some of what is happening now, while calling on some critical stakeholders to intervene in the interest of the state. Let me quote a bit from what I wrote back then: “…While one can only be happy about the miraculous recovery of the governor who, as we are now told, is already doing physical exercises (a familiar tale), I honestly do not think bringing him back home would serve either his interest or that of Taraba State. I therefore believe it is incumbent on all men of goodwill who can intervene on the side of common sense and decency to do so now, before a political crisis is created in the state.
“From my little understanding of an issue like this, if indeed the governor is leaving the hospital as being suggested, it can only be under any of three scenarios. One, the hospital has certified him medically fit, in which case he is ready to resume his job as Governor of Taraba State when he returns. Two, the hospital believes it has done the best it could medically and has therefore concluded it was better the governor was taken home so he can spend the remaining period of his life under proper care, surrounded by family love and attention. Three, the governor is being forcibly discharged from hospital by a combination of forces over which he has no control and for motives that are neither altruistic nor in his personal interest.
“While I therefore hope and pray that Suntai fully recovers, any attempt to take him from the hospital based on the political calculations in Taraba would be very dangerous both for his health and the health of the state he had governed for more than five years before the unfortunate plane crash. But the preoccupation of those close to him now should be his health.
“The way things are, President Goodluck Jonathan will also have to come in. But the most powerful actor from what I hear is actually the state chapter of the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) without whose support there can be no deal. And of course, nobody can forget Lt. General T.Y. Danjuma, the most prominent Nigerian from the state. I believe that with the intervention of all these people, the Taraba logjam can be resolved in the interest of the state. Otherwise, the potentials for crisis are all too evident. The ultimate lesson, however, is that for us to deepen our democracy, we must begin to learn from our experience, including mistakes that may have been made in the past. That is how other societies developed…”
That we do not learn from our experience is evident from the fact that the 1999 Constitution was amended in the aftermath of the Yar’Adua debacle yet nobody considered fixing the precarious situation the country was in between the period the late president was brought back from Saudi Arabia on 23 February 2010 and when he died three months later. Despite the political crisis engendered by the fact that we had an ailing president that nobody could see and an acting president with doubtful legal authority, the National Assembly, in amending the Constitution, missed an opportunity to redress the anomaly.
That accounts for the current lacuna in Taraba State. The ailing Governor (or some proxy acting on his behalf) has transmitted a letter to the House of Assembly Speaker pursuant to Section 190 (2) of the 1999 Constitution (as amended), on which Alhaji Garba Umar’s emergence as acting governor was also based. The section reads: “In the event that the Governor is unable or fails to transmit the written declaration mentioned in sub-section (1) of this section within 21 days, the House of Assembly shall, by a resolution made by a simple majority of the vote of the House, mandate the Deputy Governor to perform the functions of the office of the Governor as Acting Governor, until the Governor transmits a letter to the Speaker that he is now available to resume his functions as Governor.”
The operative phrase in the above provision is that Suntai “is now available to resume his functions as Governor” and to that extent, he is now, technically speaking, back in office. Whether he is medically fit is a different matter altogether but that would require invoking section 189 of the Constitution. Therefore, the resolution by the House of Assembly asking Umar to continue as acting governor has no basis in law. Until Suntai resigns or he is impeached, he is deemed to have resumed as Governor of Taraba State.
It is unfortunate but the amended Constitution neither provides ways out of a situation in which a president or governor would be physically “available”, as specified in section 190 (2) but medically unfit to govern as it is the case in Jalingo right now. Nor does it specify for how long a vice president or deputy governor can serve in acting capacity even when I concede that there’s no way a law can foresee all situations. That’s why we need the intervention of men and women of goodwill and a clear sense of right and wrong on the part of those in authority. But we can also see this crisis as a learning opportunity and as Rob Manuel memorably admonished, we should never “waste a crisis.”
Indeed, the lesson highlighted by the Suntai affair is our tendency to make laws or even amend the constitution to suit individual cases while losing sight of their long-term implications as a perpetual heritage. Notwithstanding, I believe that the ailing governor’s immediate family, especially his wife, has a key role to play in resolving this logjam. Denying Suntai the much-needed medical care by turning him to a pliable tool in the hands of some political opportunists who would want to govern the state by proxy could not only worsen his health, it will further damage whatever remains of his reputation. It is time the political charade in Taraba State was brought to an end.
Pius Adesanmi in Legon
My friend, Pius Adesanmi arrived Accra at the weekend to start a one-year sabbatical at the University of Ghana, Legon, from Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada where he is a resident professor. Recently named a Carnegie Diaspora Visiting Fellow, Pius will spend his time in Ghana working on a project funded by the American Carnegie Corporation that is aimed at harnessing the expertise of Africa’s Diaspora-based intellectuals for the development of universities across the continent.
Of course I feel sad that Pius chose Ghana rather than come home but then if he came to Nigeria, of what use would he be when our universities are perpetually closed? As things stand today, the crisis in our educational system requires a honest conversation between all the critical stakeholders, including the federal government and the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) whose motto now seems to be “endless strike”. But it should worry all of us that our young academics abroad–many of who were themselves products of our public universities and who ordinarily would have loved to come home, if only to give back to our society–now prefer to go to other African countries because we have somehow conspired to destroy the noble idea of the Ivory Tower.
Like a Thief in the Night
The first indication I got that the president might actually be on his way back to the country came via an SMS after my phone beeped at 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, 2010. It was from Omoyele Sowore of saharareporters. He had information that the president had left the hospital and was in fact at the Saudi airport on his way back to Nigeria, he wrote.
Although there had been hints from my previous discussions with the CSO and ADC of their possible return within the week, I had been told similar tales on several occasions, to the extent that I had become weary and no longer considered it serious. But I thought it wise to check. Naturally, my first move was to dial the Saudi line of the ADC. It had been switched off. Then I tried his Nigerian mobile numbers (which were roamed), and they were also inaccessible. Next, I tried the CSO also on all his mobile lines but got the same results.
Sensing that the story might be true after all, I tried the Saudi numbers of the security details attached to the president, and when I could not reach any of them, I concluded that surely the president was indeed on his way back to Nigeria this time. Given the political situation in Nigeria at the time, the illness of the president, and his continued stay in Saudi Arabia had caught the attention of the cable networks, most of which had detailed their correspondents in Saudi Arabia to monitor the situation. It was therefore no surprise that the moment the president left the hospital, they immediately alerted their correspondents in Nigeria.
At the presidential villa, it was also not difficult for State House correspondents to guess that the president was on his way home, especially when troops from the Brigade of Guards began moving towards the airport. Implicitly, all the plans contrived in Saudi Arabia by the handlers of the president to make the movement a secret affair had become futile. Nothing could be more ironic. By the time the chartered air ambulance and the presidential jet arrived at the Abuja international airport a few minutes apart at about 1:45 a.m., the vicinity was swarming with several pressmen, and CNN, with a camera hidden in the surrounding bush, was able to capture the arrival. Like most Nigerians, I also watched the sad episode live on CNN as one of the aircraft was made to stop in the middle of the tarmac while an ambulance was driven to the plane to evacuate the president. Even though the evacuation was so expertly done as to obscure any glimpse of it from the camera, I sensed trouble because what was happening could only mean one thing: the president was brought back home still sick. I knew this would only complicate the political situation, and I feared that my job would even be far more difficult than it already was.
I waited for about an hour after the convoy’s arrival at the villa before driving in around 3:30 a.m., whereupon I went straight to the residence of the ADC, who had just come back from the president’s residence. The stress was quite evident on his face, but since he had been gone for such a long period, our discussion dwelt initially on mundane issues before progressing, at my prodding, to the rather touchy terrain of the president’s condition.
The ADC and I are very good friends and were always open towards one another, but on this night he was very edgy and evasive, even defensive. I couldn’t get much off him, so I decided to see the CSO, who appeared to be more agreeable despite his apparent nervousness. In response to my question as to whether the president was strong enough to attend the Federal Executive Council meeting in the morning, he went into a long monologue of how the president had recovered and had become strong, but had been exhausted by the stress of the trip and would need a few more days to rest. The conclusion was that not only would he fail to attend the FEC meeting, he would still need “a few more days to recuperate” before he could begin to see visitors. “Of course, the president [will] see him later today,” was the CSO’s reply to my question about the possibility of the president seeing Jonathan during the day.
Despite his assurance, I couldn’t find any conviction in his response. I did a concise review of my understanding of the political situation for the CSO and where I thought the various actors stood, noting also how Nigeria had changed in the absence of the president and the implications of having him around in the villa if he wasn’t fit to resume office. “We have a crisis on our hands and it’s important for all the presidential aides to collaborate on how we will manage the situation,” I explained, and suggested that all the aides met at 9:00 a.m., an hour before the FEC meeting. The aim was to enable us to make an appropriate decision with regard to the way forward. Immediately I left the CSO, I drove straight to Games Village to meet my friend, Waziri Adio, whom I had called earlier to expect me. I could do with some advice because I knew I would be in a very difficult position later that morning. By now it was about 4:30 a.m. Ever so perceptive, Waziri advised me to be calm. He pointed out that if the president was not in a position to attend the council meeting, then I would have to say something. We agreed that whatever will be said had to be something that would appeal to the sentiment of Nigerians. The only thing that would soothe nerves, we both agreed, was for the president to thank all Nigerians, apologize for the problems caused by his ill health and conclude by saying he would spend the remaining months of his administration working towards reforming the electoral process, culminating in the conduct of elections in 2011 in which he would not be a participant.
While there were many Nigerians genuinely aggrieved by the manner in which Yar’Adua’s illness was handled, we also did not miss the fact that beneath the bile seen in some reactions lay the politics of the 2011 elections. So we felt that the moment we took Yar’Adua out of that equation, the pressure would ease considerably. It had been a trip worth the trouble. I left Waziri to help with the draft and drove back to the villa.
On my way back, I put a call through to the special adviser on national assembly, Senator Abba Aji, who, I knew, also had a big role to play in the emerging scenario. He went straight to the point: “Is it true the president has returned?” he asked. I told him he had. He raised several other questions, but I told him it wasn’t an issue we could conveniently discuss on the phone and added that it was important we both met immediately. “I can come to your house if you could describe the location,” I recall telling him. He was kind enough to volunteer to come to my house.
He arrived around 5:30 a.m. This time, I went straight to the point. “So, what do we do now?” I asked him. His response was a further probe of the president’s health; questions about which I had no clue. Our discussion only made the dilemma of the moment more apparent, so I told him I would insist on seeing the president when I got back to the villa.
Abba Aji could not reconcile the fact of the president’s homecoming despite not being fully fit to resume duty with the challenging situation already on ground. He went on to explain all the implications to me: It had a potential to create a political crisis in the nation and also engender serious problems that may be very difficult to manage at the National Assembly. He advised that if the president was not strong enough to resume office, it would be necessary for him to now write the National Assembly a formal letter requesting a vacation. According to Abba Aji, the letter should contain an apology from the president to the lawmakers over his inability to write earlier. “He could attribute that to the fact that he left the nation in a hurry,” he explained. I thought it was well-meaning advice, but was not sure it would be taken with enthusiasm.
Despite having scheduled our presidential aides meeting for 9:00 a.m., we didn’t really gather in the CSO’s office until about 10:00 a.m., at which time there was already tension in the air, as the ministers had arrived for the weekly Federal Executive Council session, which normally begins by 10:00 a.m. As they milled around, each called me to ask a question that was understandably similar: “How is oga?” All eyes were on me. It was a disconcerting moment.
Only six of us eventually made the meeting at the CSO’s office, since Hamza and the CPP were with the president. The SCOP had not returned to the villa, and somehow, the PLO was also not around. Those gathered that morning to take a crucial decision on the return of the president were therefore me, David Edevbie, Matt Aikhionbare (Yar’Adua’s personal secretary retained by President Jonathan), Inuwa Baba, the ADC and the CSO.
I told them that I was under increasing pressure from journalists who wanted to confirm the arrival of the president in addition to his state of health. Whereas it was my responsibility to announce the arrival of the president, I told the gathering, there is equally a sense of propriety that makes my inclusion of a caveat imperative: From a professional standpoint, I couldn’t possibly do that without seeing the president!
This generated the first crisis in our meeting. The CSO tried to cajole me with the excuse that the president was asleep and that doctors had advised that he should rise by himself and never be roused from his sleep. There was hardly any headway for fifteen minutes as we argued on this point. That was the position we were in when Tanimu, who was looking for Edevbie, came in and joined us at the meeting. But his presence was not in anyway helpful as his comments gave the impression that I was sounding unreasonable by my insistence that I had to see the president before I could issue a statement on his return.
I considered his remark uncharitable, and as we argued, the CSO placated me with these words: “Calm down, Segun, you will see the president later today. But we need to calm the nation down first.” After many pleas from everyone, especially Edevbie, who argued that the tension in the country was already palpable, I informed the group I already had a draft.
Calming the nation down as we agreed meant confirming the arrival of the president and affirming that the status quo would remain, in which case Jonathan would continue to be in charge since it was evident Yar’Adua was still unwell. It’s instructive to note that we—barring the ADC and the CSO—were as yet ignorant of how bad the president’s health was. But we all agreed that Jonathan would continue to run the affairs of the country as he was already.
The issue of whether he would continue to be called acting president came up, and we all felt that it was absurd to have a president and acting president in the country. With the return of the president, Jonathan automatically goes back to being VP, we thought. There was not much debate about this at all. It was a position we unanimously agreed on.
With the benefit of hindsight, particularly given what I later glimpsed about the medical state in which the president was brought in and given the background information I would later have about the tricky negotiations that had led to the National Assembly resolution, I would have suggested addressing Jonathan as acting president. It’s unlikely there would have been much resistance.
The fact, however, remains that I participated fully in the decision to address Jonathan as VP, but it was by no means out of disrespect or mischief. There was silence as I began to read, but Tanimu interjected that the statement was too long and contained unnecessary details. About everyone agreed with him that the statement should be quite brief. So at the end, we decided we should just announce the arrival of the president, thank Nigerians and say that the VP would continue to run the country’s affairs until the president was well enough. So at the end, it was not anybody dictating to me; it was my call. I released the following statement:
“After being discharged by the team of medical experts overseeing his treatment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua returned to the presidential villa, Abuja, early this morning. President Yar’Adua is grateful to the vice president, Dr. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, for competently overseeing the affairs of state in his absence.
“The president also wishes to thank the president of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the entire membership of the National Assembly, the Governors’ Forum, the judiciary, the armed forces, and other security agencies, former heads of state and other eminent Nigerians for their roles in maintaining order and stability during his absence.
“Mr. President wishes to reassure all Nigerians that on account of their unceasing prayers and by the special grace of God, his health has greatly improved. However, while Mr. President recuperates the vice president will continue to oversee the affairs of state.”
I had barely finished the draft when I got a call from the CSO’s office inviting me to another meeting. Getting to the office, I found the head of service, Mr. Steve Oronsaye, Inuwa and the CSO discussing another sensitive issue that could be summarized in these words: Could the acting president sit on the president’s chair inside the council chambers? The debate arose from an earlier meeting between Oronsaye and Jonathan. Oronsaye said Jonathan asked him about where he would sit if he came to the FEC meeting in view of the arrival of the president. He had actually advised Jonathan to sit on the vice president’s chair, but Jonathan replied that he would rather not come to the FEC meeting. Oronsaye said his advice was based on the fact that the president was back to the villa, although he also did not know in what state.
Inuwa and I cautioned that a crisis may ensue if the council meeting failed to hold that day, and stressed the need for Jonathan to be persuaded to attend, in which case he had to sit on the president’s chair. The CSO agreed with me, and together with the ADC, he went to plead with Jonathan to attend the meeting with the assurance that he could sit on the president’s chair.
I had by then released my statement with the understanding that Jonathan would preside over the FEC. My thoughts were that if he did attend and sat on the president’s seat, these would be indications he was effectively in charge. Just a few minutes later, however, I gathered that Jonathan was no longer coming to the FEC meeting owing to the ministerial delegation’s return from Saudi Arabia.
Shortly after, the SGF, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed came into the council chambers to announce that ministers should assemble in the office of the acting president. What I didn’t know at the time—but was later told, however—was that a security detail had been assigned to stand behind the president’s chair before 10:00 a.m. to secure it from any ‘intruder’, which in this case would be Jonathan. Also, by addressing Jonathan as VP in my statement, I had unwittingly entered the political fray even though at that point I didn’t understand how big a fuss it would generate.
The political drama had begun in the night when the president arrived at the residence where the flag of commander in chief was being flown. At that time, Akinola Aguda House, where Jonathan, as acting president, resided, also carried the flag of commander in chief. But beyond the symbolism was the fact that the Brigade of Guards had deployed troops to the airport with enormous weaponry to receive the president back into the villa without as much as notifying Jonathan.
Although the ADC had followed the normal standard operating procedure in calling from Saudi Arabia to seek military reinforcement, the fact that Jonathan was, at least going by the National Assembly resolution, also commander in chief meant that troops should not have been deployed without his consent.
By the next morning, there was also the dilemma of him driving into the villa with the insignia of commander in chief on his car. There were fears among his close aides that he could be shot by the soldiers. At this point, General Andrew Owoye Azazi had become his adviser, and he pointed out all the seeming landmines from the military point of view. The situation was even more compounded by a mix of ethnicity and religion, especially given a security report that emanated from Nigeria, a copy of which was intercepted by one of the Western embassies in Nigeria.
The report, believed to have been sent shortly before the ministerial delegation took off from Nigeria, was to the effect that the plot against Yar’Adua was meant to install a Christian to supplant a Muslim. Signals from the military were also hazy, with fears that some soldiers could take out both Yar’Adua and Jonathan. These were some of the dynamics playing out that day, but it wasn’t until very much later that I could understand the complex web of intrigue amid which I had found myself.
The first call I got was from Ima Niboro, who told me that Jonathan wanted to know if he was no longer acting president. Then came a flurry of phone calls from other aides. By then, I knew I was in trouble. Even though we had anticipated that some people might question the rationale behind addressing Jonathan as acting president, no one imagined it was going to be as serious as it became. (On a personal note, what I felt was important at the time was that Jonathan would continue to run the affairs of the country. But given that he wanted to know what his official status was, I told Ima to issue a statement that would contradict mine by calling Jonathan acting president). Looking back, if I had felt ‘acting president’ was the appropriate term to use in my statement, I doubt that anybody would have stopped me. That is the reason I found the insinuations that I had taken instructions from the First Lady rather ridiculous, especially when I did not get to meet with her until four days after they had returned from Saudi Arabia.
Instructively, there were whispers that day within the villa that Yar’Adua could be playing the ‘Katsina trick’ on everyone. It was such a strong rumour that many people believed, hence there was not much gravitation towards Jonathan that day. The ‘Katsina trick’ referred to how then Governor Yar’Adua had returned to Katsina State after six months in a German hospital. It was said that his then deputy had given him up as dead until Yar’Adua ‘resurrected’ in the state, causing serious commotion. On February 23, 2010, many within the villa were expecting a similar occurrence. Nobody knew what to believe. Some ministers were even saying he could attend the FEC meeting that day.
Depressed and confused, I called my former boss, Nduka Obaigbena, about the challenge I was now facing. He came to Abuja, and after I explained the scenario to him, he sought an appointment for a meeting with Jonathan that night. The reassuring feedback was that by the next morning, Jonathan would call a meeting of all presidential aides, including the CSO and the ADC. At the meeting, he would read the riot act, tell everybody he was in charge, and Ima Niboro and I would jointly address the media, at which time I would reaffirm loyalty to Jonathan as acting president. It was all agreed, and I felt this would resolve the problem.
On my way to the office the next morning, I decided to see Obaigbena again, and while we were together, Ima Niboro called and was invited over by Obaigbena. In reviewing the political situation with regard to my statement where Jonathan was addressed as VP, I told him that the issue of acting president was not so serious and that I actually had an ace that exonerates me, assuming there was any opposition from the president’s side. I told Ima that in the medical report the president had sent from Saudi Arabia the previous week, Jonathan was addressed as acting president. I said that was sufficient evidence to show that even Yar’Adua recognized Jonathan as acting president.
It was a surprise to me that Ima was not even aware of the report, and when he asked whether I could give it to him, I promised I would. Obaigbena also wanted THISDAY to have it, but I declined. A major feature of my stay at the villa was that I deprived THISDAY of so many stories. Not only did I not give them exclusives, they also downplayed several stories they sourced on their own just to protect me, because I would be the obvious suspect of a leak, even when I might not know anything about it.
I eventually got to the office around 10:00 a.m., and at about the same time the ADC and the CSO also came in as we waited for word from the office of the acting president about the meeting, and nothing came. Several times, we called his office and that of his aides, and whenever we made enquiries, we were told the man was busy and that the meeting would hold.
When at about 4:00 p.m., he still had not called us, I decided to intervene by granting an interview to the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA). Since the contentious issue was the fact that I had called Jonathan VP, I felt that I could redeem the situation simply by addressing him as acting president.
The first question was on the status of Jonathan following the return of Yar’Adua. I ensured my response addressed the issue that agitated the minds of critics: “The acting president and commander in chief, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan continues to run the affairs of the country until the president (Umaru Musa Yar’Adua) is fit to take over. The statement is very clear that the acting president continues to run the affairs of the nation. And that remains the situation as far as I am concerned, and as far as the president is concerned.”
The next question was in relation to the fate of Yar’Adua’s aides under the acting presidency of Jonathan, given that he also had his corps of aides. This was my reply: “We run one presidency, and the acting president has already called for a meeting, and I believe the meeting will hold tomorrow, to brief us on how things will go and how he will run the presidency. Everybody is included, especially those who just returned from Saudi Arabia. So, it’s just one presidency, and we are all under Dr. Jonathan now as the acting president and commander in chief until the president returns to office fully.”
After I had successfully navigated this issue, the reporter sought clarification about the statement that the acting president wanted to meet with Turai Yar’Adua, to which I remarked: “If you ask anybody who was at the meeting, he or she will tell you that what you have there in the press is not what actually happened. I was not actually there. I had some work that kept me in the office, and before I got there, the meeting was over. What I gleaned, however, was that the acting president said the president had arrived but that he has yet to see him. He suggested that he would see the First Lady, which was just a matter of courtesy. “So, when you hear that Turai is in charge, Turai takes over, all those things are not correct. It’s very unfair to the First Lady at a time [when] she is nursing her husband. So, there is no such thing, and you don’t expect the acting president, Dr. Jonathan, to report to the First Lady. It is abnormal, and it won’t happen. What the acting president actually said was that he was going to see the First Lady and ask about the husband, that is the president, and probably see him. To me, it is a normal situation, which, I believe, is the natural thing to do.”
The last question dwelt on the relationship between the president and the acting president, to which I replied, “Good, very cordial relation. I know for a fact that when the president was in Saudi Arabia, the medical report of the president was sent to the acting president on the instruction of the president. The last one was last Friday. Dr. Salisu, the CPP, sent to the acting president through the ambassador a forwarding letter. I was copied. I have a copy of the medical report on the president’s health. And if you read the letter sent by the president, he addressed Dr. Jonathan as the acting president. I have a copy of the letter. “They have always had a cordial relationship. And I also know for a fact that several times in the council, when the president was presiding, he always said it that any time he was unavailable, no memo should wait for him, that they (ministers) should go to the acting president, who was then the vice president. And also, when there was friction between ministers and ministers of state, he often cited the kind of cordial relationship he had with Dr. Goodluck Jonathan then as his vice president. So, as far as I am concerned, they had a very cordial relationship.”
My interview was lavishly aired on all the television channels and print media the next day, and I felt that the subtle rebuttal would at least attract some sympathy and would help defuse tension. It turned out that I was wrong, as it created another problem for me. By the afternoon of Saturday, four days after the president’s return, I got a call from Ima Niboro that the acting president wanted to see me.
I drove to Akinola Aguda House and met him and Ima at the lunch table. There was no pretension; he was not in a friendly mood. He said he had received several phone calls concerning the interview I had granted the media, where I claimed that the president had been sending him medical reports from Saudi Arabia. He told me I was aware of the only one he had received, which was in itself very indicting. My statement was misleading and was causing him political problems, he explained and added, “Please Segun, you know I like you a lot, so I don’t want to be forced to disclaim your statement, but I may be forced to.”
I quickly interrupted that I would clarify the statement immediately. It was very evident to me at that point that I had unwittingly been caught in the web of a complex power game in which I got further entangled the more I tried to extricate myself. My allusion to the medical report in the interview was seen as a deliberate ploy to make Jonathan look bad. I explained the circumstances under which I had talked about the medical report and told him Ima was a witness. He knew that my intention was to validate the point that even Yar’Adua had acknowledged that Jonathan was acting president. That issue of the medical report, it later emerged, was the weapon that would be used against me in the media by those who claimed to be supporting Jonathan.
An instance was a conference with editors in Lagos called by a prominent person in government who railed against my “negative role for the cabal,” claiming that I “had become a tool in the hands of Turai” and that I had conceived the issue of the medical report in order to embarrass Jonathan. I learnt a few days later that the issue of the medical report was being used by opponents of Jonathan, especially from the north, who argued that he never mentioned the fact that he ever received any such report from Saudi Arabia.
So, in retrospect, I understand the basis of his anger towards me, even though I made my statement without any malicious intent. First, I felt, like Jonathan, that the medical report was not in any way helpful to Yar’Adua, and hence preferred that it be kept out of public view. Indeed, that was what I told the Nigerian ambassador who had sent it from Saudi Arabia. In not revealing the medical record, Jonathan was doing the president a world of good. Secondly, the medical report came only a week before the president’s arrival. Also, in alluding to it in my interview, I never meant it as an indictment of Jonathan, but rather to reinforce his position as acting president. The decision to bring up the issue of the medical report was not in any way meant to undermine Jonathan’s political fortune, it was to enhance it, but his handlers saw it differently, and I unwittingly became a pawn in what had become a complex power game.
While the politicians were sucked in the unfolding intrigues and holding several meetings in Abuja, the main concern and challenge for me then was for the acting president to meet with the president. That was what I kept pushing for. Four days after the president arrived, I finally came across the First Lady on the evening of Saturday, November 26. She looked very pale and emaciated, and I told her so. I asked about the president, and we had a brief chat before I left. We were never really close, and it was almost always uncomfortable whenever we met. Maybe it was my fault.
From the outset, I had decided that it was best for me to simply stick to my official assignment and avoid her, but I had told her husband that I would be willing to offer help any time she needed me. Since she never sought my assistance, I also did not bother to court her, which was good for me. But at this point when nobody could see the president, I knew the decision was hers to make, so I offered my advice that it was in the interest of everyone for the president to meet with the acting president. She agreed with me, but she was non-committal as to when such a meeting would take place.
I felt awkward each day people asked whether I had seen the president. Convinced it was better to be frank over such a matter, my reply was always in the negative. Yet telling the truth also made me look ridiculous, if not stupid. How could I claim to be spokesman for someone I had not seen, a president on whose behalf I had issued a statement to the world? I had by now become the object of public derision. I had to endure all kinds of snide remarks and could neither sleep at night nor eat. It was an overwhelming situation.
Ten days after the arrival from Saudi Arabia, I had still not seen Yar’Adua. That was the day I decided I could no longer accept the situation. Following a series of failed promises from the CSO and the ADC, I knew it was not a decision they could make, so I went to the home of a confidant of the First Lady with a simple demand. “If your people will kill me today, I am prepared to die, but if I do not see Yar’Adua today, I am going to resign,” I told her.
Screaming, I told the friend of the First Lady that there was nothing anybody could hide from me about Yar’Adua, as I had seen the worst of him. Even if he was in a coma or on life support, I needed to see him that day, otherwise they would hear it from the airwaves that I had resigned, I said.
Apparently seeing a side of me that she had not seen before, the First Lady’s confidant put a call to the CSO and the ADC and invited them to her house, saying she had a big crisis on her hands. Within ten minutes, the ADC and the CSO had arrived and the trio did all they could to calm me, but I insisted that if I didn’t see the president, there was no way I could remain his spokesman beyond that day. I knew I was making a very difficult request, having been told by one of the security men who went with them to Saudi Arabia on the day they returned that the last time he saw the president was the day they were leaving Nigeria. This meant that throughout their sojourn in Saudi Arabia he never saw the president whose life he was supposed to be protecting. And given the way the return was organized, he also had not seen the president even when they travelled and returned together! But my mind was made up. It was from Hamza that I learnt that my request had been granted about two hours after I arrived home. He called to say that I should be on the alert, that anytime the president was awake, he would call so I could come to see him. That call gave me a surge of relief because while I had resolved to resign, I also realized it would further worsen the political situation, given the ethnic slant that could be given to my action.
Besides, I genuinely liked Yar’Adua and enjoyed working with him. So, naturally, I empathized with him and would not want to be seen as having betrayed him. Yet, I considered my position untenable if I could not see him. Rather surprisingly, I would later learn that when the First Lady was told of my request, her response was, “Let him come and see baba. I have been told that people are now abusing the poor boy.”
Unfortunately, it was around 2:00 a.m. when Hamza Nadada (SA, Domestic Affairs) called that first day. I was asleep and so couldn’t make it. But three days later, I went with the ADC to the president’s living room. I was made to take off my shoes and, ordinarily, should have been disinfected in addition to a few other health protocols at that time.
I met the president seated with the doctor and Hamza beside him, holding his hands. He was barely recognizable. I was introduced but given the vacant look on his face, I was not so certain he recognized me. He, however, managed to nod his head in acknowledgment of my presence. Yet, even that had taken considerable effort and time. I mumbled a few words of greeting and left without even being excused. I had seen enough to make me cry later. Although I felt a sense of relief that I had seen him, I felt really sad about the condition he was in. While I had hopes that he would recover, I had no illusions that the person I had seen that day would ever be strong enough to resume as president within the time left for his mandate to elapse. That explains why I was quite skeptical when stories suggesting he had fully recovered began to surface. There were tales in the media about the president being sighted walking in the garden or going to the library. I knew they were lies and told every editor or reporter that contacted me to ignore such tales. Some did, but some still went ahead to publish the lies they were fed.