Umaru Yar'adua was elected president of Nigeria, the most populous and arguably most powerful nation in Africa, in April of 2007. Though his family has been prominent in Nigerian politics since the 1960s, Yar'adua himself was a relative unknown when the powerful outgoing president, Olusegun Obasanjo, identified him as his chosen successor. After an election widely decried as fraudulent, Yar'adua, previously known only as the governor of Katsina, one of the calmest of Nigeria's thirty-six states, suddenly found himself thrust into the national and international spotlight. A quiet, well-educated man, Yar'adua began his term facing a number of severe problems, including rampant corruption, chronic mismanagement of oil revenues, deep ethnic and religious tensions, and rising violence in the depressed but oil-rich regions around the mouth of the Niger River.
Umaru Musa Yar'adua was born in Katsina, the capital of the northern, Muslim-majority state of the same name, in 1951. His father, also named Umaru Musa Yar'adua, was a prominent member of the Fulani tribal group, a high-ranking official in the Katsina Emirate (the region's traditional ruling body), and the minister responsible for Lagos, the nation's largest city, during the so-called First Republic period in the 1960s. The younger Yar'adua's brother Shehu Yar'adua, meanwhile, joined the military, rising rapidly through the ranks to become Obasanjo's deputy between 1976 and 1979, when the latter was ruling the country not as an elected president, as he would later do, but as a military strongman. Both father and brother fell into disfavor under the military rule (from 1993 to 1998) of General Sani Abacha, who imprisoned them on charges of disloyalty.
Trained as Chemistry Teacher
Despite his family's activities, Umaru Yar'adua seemed destined for a career outside politics. After a standard series of primary and secondary schools, he entered Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), one of northern Nigeria's most prominent institutions of higher learning, in 1972, graduating three years later with a bachelor's degree in education and chemistry. He then taught for several years in Lagos and the northern town of Zaria before returning to ABU for his master's degree in analytical chemistry, which he received in 1980. After four years as a chemistry lecturer at Katsina Polytech- nic, Yar'adua left teaching in 1983 to enter the business world as the general manager of Sambo Farms Ltd., a position he held from 1983 to 1989. As his business interests proliferated, he accepted positions on the boards of several corporations, including Hamada Holdings, the Katsina State Farmers' Supply Company, Habib Nigeria Bank Ltd., and the Katsina State Investment and Property Development Company, where he served as board chair.
While an undergraduate, Yar'adua expressed support for Marxism, a position that may have caused some tension with his conservative, property-owning family. In any event, his views gradually grew more moderate, and by the time of General Ibrahim Babangida's military rule, which lasted from 1985 to 1993, he had joined his brother Shehu's Popular Front, a mainstream group that later merged with others to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). In a sign of his growing political involvement, Yar'adua attended the 1988 Constituent Assembly charged with drafting a new national constitution. By 1991 he was head of the SDP in his home state of Katsina and the party's candidate that year in an unsuccessful bid for the governorship.
Shehu Yar'adua died in prison at the end of 1997, in the waning days of General Abacha's dictatorship. The effect of his brother's death on Umaru is not precisely known, but it seems to have intensified his political ambitions. In 1998, just as final preparations were being made for a return to civilian rule, General Abacha died. His successor was another general, Abdulsalam Abubakar, who nevertheless promised to step down when the necessary reforms were complete. This hopeful but unstable transition period offered civilian politicians significant opportunities, and Yar'adua took full advantage, founding a political group, K-34, which became the core of the People's Democratic Party (PDP). With its moderate platform of economic growth, welfare, and social conservatism, the PDP quickly gained members, notably Olusegun Obasanjo himself. As the PDP's candidate for the Katsina governorship, meanwhile, Yar'adua ran again in 1999, this time successfully, and was reelected four years later.
Gained Reputation for Honesty
By many accounts, Yar'adua was one of Nigeria's better governors. In a system that funnels vast oil revenues to state coffers without effective safeguards or oversight, corruption is rampant. As of 2007, nearly all of the country's thirty-six governors were under investigation for misappropriating funds; Yar'adua, conspicuously, was among the few who were not. This does not mean that his administration was entirely above suspicion; on the contrary, critics have noted, in particular, that some lucrative government contracts have been awarded to companies closely tied to the Yar'adua family. As of the spring of 2008, however, his reputation for integrity remained largely intact, thanks in part to his willingness to declare his personal assets on taking office. This declaration, which makes corruption more difficult to conceal and is therefore obligatory for public officeholders in many nations of the world, was a novelty in Nigeria when Yar'adua first took office in 1999. It is difficult to know for certain that Yar'adua was the first Nigerian politician ever to make such a declaration, as his supporters claim, but he was unquestionably one of the first. Nigerians are divided on the declaration's significance. Many take it as a sign of Yar'adua's personal and professional integrity, while others view it more cynically as a piece of shrewd political theater. There are probably elements of truth to both sides.
At a Glance …
Born Umaru Musa Yar'adua on July 9, 1951, in Katsina, Katsina State, Nigeria; son of Umaru Musa Yar'adua (a local politician); married Turai Umaru Yar'adua; children: seven; media reports of other children with at least one other woman. Religion: Muslim. Education: Ahmadu Bello University, BS, education and chemistry, 1975, MS, analytical chemistry, 1980.
Career: Holy Child College, Lagos, Nigeria, teacher, 1975-76; Katsina College of Arts, Science, and Technology, Zaria, Nigeria, chemistry lecturer, 1976-79; Katsina Polytechnic, Katsina, Nigeria, chemistry lecturer, 1979-83; Sambo Farms Ltd., Funtua, Nigeria, general manager, 1983-89; businessman with various enterprises, 1989-99; governor of Katsina State, Nigeria, 1999-2007; president of Nigeria, 2007—.
Memberships: Hamada Holdings, board of directors, 1983-89; Katsina State Farmers' Supply Company, board of directors, 1984-85; Katsina State Investment and Property Development Company, board chair, 1994-96; Habib Nigeria Bank Ltd., board of directors, 1995-99.
Awards: National Primary Education Productivity Merit Award, 2004; Best Governor Award, Central Bank of Nigeria, 2005.
Addresses: Office—c/o Embassy of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 3519 International Court NW, Washington, DC 20008.
Yar'adua was still serving his second four-year term as governor when outgoing President Obasanjo, leader of the PDP, shocked observers by selecting him as his chosen successor at the party's convention in December of 2006. There is little doubt that Obasanjo, then at the end of his second term as a duly elected, civilian president, would have liked to stand for a third term himself, but a constitutionally mandated limit of two terms prevented him. There were probably three major factors behind Yar'adua's selection: his reputation for integrity, his family's close ties to Obasanjo, and his relative obscurity. Analysts considered the last of these of particular importance; if Obasanjo succeeded in transforming an unknown regional governor into the president of one hundred and thirty-eight million people, they argued, his claims upon that president would be difficult to ignore.
Local and international observers agreed that the 2007 general elections that brought Yar'adua to power were badly managed, with eyewitnesses across the country reporting violence and intimidation at polling stations, lost ballot boxes, and outright fraud. Because most of the misdeeds appeared to favor the ruling party—the PDP—few Nigerians put much credence in its claim that Yar'adua won seventy percent of the vote. Opposition leaders immediately mounted a legal challenge, but a five-judge panel validated Yar'adua's victory. The immediate challenge for the new president was to prevent the election scandal from damaging his reputation for honesty. His response was to enable a special investigative commission to invalidate the results of individual races, most of which had been declared initially in the PDP's favor. While the commission has ordered new elections in a number of cases, the PDP's hold on the country remains as strong under Yar'adua as it was under his predecessor Obasanjo, and the extent of the latter's personal influence over the new administration remains a matter of heated debate. The elections nevertheless remain a source of pride in Nigeria, for they marked the first time since independence that executive power had passed from one elected administration to another, without the interruption of a military coup d'état.
As of mid-2008, it was still too early to assess Yar'adua's talents as president, though he has made some positive efforts to unify a nation deeply divided along ethnic, religious, and economic lines. While most of the country's oil reserves, by far its largest source of revenue, lie in the nation's predominately Christian southern half, the PDP, and much of the government, is strongly oriented toward the Muslim north. Yar'adua therefore did well to take as his vice president a man from the Christian south, Goodluck Jonathan (sometimes referred to, particularly in the foreign press, as Jonathan Goodluck), and to send him on missions to some of the armed rebel groups that have made that region an extremely dangerous and unstable place. While many observers dismiss groups like the Niger Delta People's Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND) as criminal gangs, Yar'adua seems to recognize the validity of many of their underlying grievances, including catastrophic environmental damage from decades of poorly regulated oil production and a revenue-sharing system that leaves local residents in dire poverty despite the oil beneath their feet. Whether the vice president's talks will result in a substantive agreement is unclear, and many Nigerians, disappointed by decades of poor governance, are understandably skeptical. That Yar'adua is making at least some effort to resolve the situation peacefully, however, is progress of a sort.
Economist, October 20, 2007, p.66.
New York Times, December 18, 2006; February 27, 2008.
"Biography: Yar'adua and Goodluck—Presidency 2007," http://www.yaradua2007.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=14&Itemid=26 (accessed May 22, 2008).
"Profile: President Umaru Yar'adua," BBC News, May 29, 2007, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/africa/6187249.stm (accessed May 22, 2008).
Walker, Andrew, "Can Nigerian Leader Get On with His Job?" BBC News, February 26, 2008, http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/africa/7265247.stm (accessed May 22, 2008).
—R. Anthony Kugler