Yar'adua: Marginalising Other Nigerians

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Written by Reuben Abati
Some close friends and associates of President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua reportedly sighted him on Tuesday. On Thursday, four Muslim clerics also saw him in the presence of his wife and security aide and they had a prayer session with him. I don't have a problem with this, I grant a benefit of the doubt, assuming the clerics are willing and ready to lay their hands on the Holy Quran and swear that indeed the man they saw and who sat down and could not utter a word, but was strong enough to raise his hands in prayer was President Umaru Yar'Adua. However, there are questions to be asked.

Are these persons who have been given the special privilege of selective sighting of the President more important than other Nigerians? If the President is strong enough and can shake hands, the more dignified approach would have been to put him on national television and have him smile and wave at us. Given the amount of emotion that Nigerians have expended on the matter of his ill-health and invisibility, we would be satisfied to know that he is still alive, first, before other posers are raised. Besides, he is receiving medical treatment and has been on a protracted leave at the taxpayer's expense.

Are the privileged ones who have been allowed to see the President more important than his mother who was reportedly prevented from seeing him? Surely, if he is strong enough to receive visitors as they claim, his mother should be more than happy to see him recuperating. Are the privileged visitors who are now advertising their access to the unseen President Yar'Adua as if it were a status symbol, also more important than Acting President Jonathan who now calls the shots in the Presidency but who has not been allowed to exercise control over the Presidential Villa by President Yar'Adua's very powerful handlers? The Daily Trust quotes one anonymous aide saying the President doesn't want to see Jonathan but he may grant audience to David Mark and Dimeji Bankole! Is all of this about personal animus or Nigeria? Where are the patriots in this saga?

Turning the President into an apparition who makes occasional appearances and is seen by a few whose evidence is unverifiable has turned the man into a subject of ridicule, erodes public sympathy for him, and further raises serious security questions. Has it not occurred to anyone that having a Presidential Villa to which all kinds of persons may be admitted without the knowledge or authority of the Acting President's own officials compromises his security as Acting President? In the newspapers yesterday, it was reported that Acting President Jonathan had no prior knowledge of the visit by the four clerics. He read the story in the papers like other Nigerians. Is the National Security Agency still reporting to Yar'Adua or to Jonathan? What is the new National Security Adviser doing? Can anyone imagine clerics and associates sauntering in and out of the White House without the knowledge of the secret service? At every turn, the handling of President Yar'Adua's case amounts to having a studied contempt for the Nigerian people, and particularly for the Acting President. We have just had another demonstration of that.

Making a song and a dance out of what should have been a quiet, private visit exposes the mischief of the persons involved, but whatever may be their real motive, this has backfired badly as the latest incident may be given an ethnic and religious interpretation. First, the religious dimension. Note this: all the persons who have so far claimed publicly to have sighted President Yar'Adua, since his return from Saudi Arabia, are all Muslims. This is a point that aggrieved persons may raise or use as a point of reference to promote existing prejudices. Follow the sequence of the orchestrated (dis)information: There was a certain cousin of his who drank tea with him shortly after his return. A Muslim. On Friday, last week, there were additional reports that the President was going to attend Jumat Service at the Abuja Central Mosque. This caused quite some excitement as both Muslims and Christians staked out the mosque expecting to see him. The Nigerian Tribune later reported the sighting of the Presidential convoy, but there was no Yar'Adua offering prayers at the Mosque. Now, a few days ago, four Muslim clerics reportedly saw the man: the Chief Imam of Abuja, Ustaz Musa Mohammed; leader of the Izala Muslim sect in Katsina, Sheik Isa Pantami; Sheik Yakubu Musa, and President of the Supreme Council of Sharia in Nigeria (SCSN), Sheik Ibrahim Datti Ahmed.

In a country where there are strong sentiments about balance and representation, I dare say this guest list is insensitive. Why should it be only the Sheiks seeing the President the moment he is able to sit down and shake hands? Where are the Archbishops, the Bishops, Primates, Prelates - representing all the major religious groups in the country, the Chief Imams of other major cities in Nigeria, (apart from the privileged ones from Gombe, Kastina and Abuja), the Sheiks of other Islamic sects (granting access to only the Izala sect could cause intra-Muslim group disaffection). Where are the Living Spiritual Masters? They too should be obliged. President Yar'Adua does not need to say anything to them; he can also just sit down and shake their hands, and thereafter, those religious leaders should give their own reports. The selection should reflect the country's six geo-political zones to forestall the simmering religious conflict. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) has issued a statement protesting that the visit by religious leaders should have taken place under the umbrella of the Nigerian Inter-Religious Council; the members see an attempt by "a Northern Islamic cabal to make Nigeria a feudalistic state"- an obvious reference to the bearded Sheiks from the Izala and Sharia sect. See?

Nigerians of other ethnic extraction may also raise a legitimate point about being marginalized. Virtually all the names that have been advertised as having seen the President are from one part of the country: the Hausa-Fulani stock. The Northernisation of power and the marginalization of other Nigerians is a usual refrain on the lips of critics of the political North. Here we are again. If all Nigerians contributed money to pay for President Yar'Adua's healthcare to bring him to a stage where he can now contemplate going to mosque and receiving visitors, then other Nigerians must be good enough to see him too, and have him drink tea with them and honour them with a handshake. It A Federal Character principle is enshrined in the Constitution. It is one principle that many Nigerians like to quote endlessly and in every situation. A sick President is bad enough. A President that opts for nepotism at critical moments is worse. Nigerians from other ethnic groups should be granted access to President Yar'Adua. On his guest list this week, we have been told there was a close friend- Alhaji Dahiru Mangal, (certainly, he must have close friends from other parts of Nigeria too); there was also a son-in-law in attendance, Governor Isa Yuguda of Bauchi state (lucky fellow, see how he is already enjoying the benefits of marrying a President's daughter!), and a member of the House of Representatives- Hon. Inuwa Shehu lmam. Allowing the issue of President Yar'Adua's health to fan the embers of ethnic and religious division is a dangerous dimension to the story.

And that brings me to the report by BBC on the latest development: "Nigerian clerics meet ailing President Umaru Yar'Adua." Those clerics were not representing Nigeria. The door to selected visitors could be opened a little wider. If the objective is to convince Nigerians that the President is alive and on his way to full recovery, for credibility purposes, there must be a perceived diversity to the number of persons providing the evidence. To this end, I recommend that members of the civil society should also be invited to be part of this sighting game.

Professor Wole Soyinka can be invited specially to drink wine with the recovering President. No tea please. Wine! Wine won't do President Yar'Adua any harm. The distinguished Professor can be counted upon to know the right kind of wine that can strengthen his ailing heart and free his tongue (the Chief Imam says he can't talk yet). Of course, the Nobel Laureate will offer us a far more detailed and convincing feedback. Sounding somewhat excited, the Chief Imam of Abuja disclosed that President Yar'Adua now looks fit and he may soon return to active duty. Is the Chief Imam a medical doctor now issuing certificates of medical fitness? A second team from civil society should include Pastor Tunde Bakare (in case prayers are required, he will sort that out, and in any case, he was even born a Muslim, so he can speak both spiritual tongues!); Joe Okei-Odumakin (gender sensitivity), Chidi Odinkalu (he will represent the Open Society advocates), Shehu Sani (he can be trusted), and Omoyele Sowore (to convince the concerned Nigerians in Diaspora that the meeting actually took place). I will like to be there too (to write the report, and I promise I will describe every little detail. If the President coughs, scratches his head, or asks for a glass of water, everything will be documented!) To acknowledge the international community's stake, journalists from BBC, VOA and CNN should also be allowed to have access to the President, on the condition that they can only describe what they have seen and not video-tape the encounter. A representative of Human Rights Watch can also come around to ensure that the rights of a man freshly rising from a sick bed are not violated. It may be a good idea to protect the man from civil society activists who may exceed their brief and start asking such questions that can affect his heart. The Sheiks who went to see Yar'Adua didn't remember to take pictures with him. Henceforth, every privileged visitor to that hidden section of Aso Villa should be allowed a photo session with President Yar'Adua for the benefit of all doubting Thomases. If this is the game that the Yar'Aduas want to play, they might as well play it properly.

But isn't all of it ridiculous? That's what you get in a country that opts for self-ridicule as a way of life.

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