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Nigerian president puts rumors of his death to rest

Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar'Adua put to rest rumors that he was dead in a telephone interview with the BBC Tuesday. It's been six weeks since he left his post for treatment in Saudi Arabia.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / January 12, 2010

Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'adua attends a Muslim prayer session in Abuja, Nigeria on September 29, 2009.

Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters/File

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Johannesburg, South Africa

UPDATE

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By speaking with a BBC reporter by phone from his hospital bed in Saudi Arabia, Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua has put to rest rumors that he was either dead or in a coma.

President Yar'Adua told the BBC that he hoped to recover quickly and to return to his duties. The president's six-week long absence has sparked calls for him to step down, as much of the country's key decisions – including a peace process with Niger Delta rebels and an investigation into a Nigerian-born plane-bomber - remains undone.

"At the moment I am undergoing treatment, and I'm getting better from the treatment. I hope that very soon there will be tremendous progress, which will allow me to get back home," he told a BBC reporter. "As soon as my doctors discharge me, I will return to Nigeria to resume my duties."
"I wish, at this stage, to thank all Nigerians for their prayers for my good health, and for their prayers for the nation."

Thousands of demonstrators gathered Tuesday in the streets of Nigeria's capital, led by Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Nigerian legislators were scheduled to meet today for the first time to discuss what to do about the power vacuum left by Yar'Adua's absence.

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As the Monitor reported Monday, Yar’Adua’s absence comes at a crucial time for Nigeria, a country that has become a major supplier of oil to the United States.

A government amnesty program with rebels in the oil-rich Niger Delta region has stalled, and rebel groups warn that their patience is running out. Nigeria has also come under fire for the growth of radical Islamist groups in the Muslim-dominated north, and the fact that the man who attempted to bomb the Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit was a Nigerian citizen.

While the country’s vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, has begun chairing security council meetings recently, there are still questions about whether Yar’Adua has completed the legal transfer of power to his vice president. In short, these are times that require strong leadership, not a lack thereof.

“The general political temperature is gearing up, and the general willingness of people to settle down is getting worse,” says Richard Moncrieff, head of the Dakar office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “Partly this is because of the ongoing problem in the Niger Delta, which constantly reminds people how the federal government is funded [through oil revenues]. Then you have the North, where there are plenty of people who reject the state entirely. So it is a very dangerous context.”

With its oil wealth, Nigeria should rank among the richest oil-producing nations on earth. But rampant corruption has concentrated that wealth into the hands of a very few Nigerians, leaving out impoverished northerners, who increasingly turn to extremist Islamist movements, and also leaving out southerners in the Niger Delta, who have launched a six-year-long war against the state and against oil companies to forcibly take back oil resources for themselves. Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, recently rated Nigeria as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

While Nigeria has a vigorous free press, the emergence of stories reporting on the president’s health over the weekend marked a major turning point, since many Nigerians refuse to speak about a person’s failing health. Even Femi Falana, who has launched a lawsuit to clarify just who is in charge refuses to speculate publicly about the president’s health. This forces government spokesmen to walk carefully when issuing statements to the media.

“In as much as we do not have a clear idea of what is happening, there are important government decisions which we do not know how they will be worked out,” says Mr. Dokubo. “But Nigeria is a country where the best is yet to come. We will have problems, but we will wobble through.”

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