Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s ailing president, returned home on Wednesday after a mysterious three-month absence, marking the latest twist in the political saga over who leads Africa’s most populous country.
The unexpected homecoming came just two weeks after a handover of power to Goodluck Jonathan, the vice president. Nigeria’s lawmakers pushed through the move as the leaderless country saw its government stall and militants in the energy-rich Niger Delta threaten fresh attacks on oil facilities.
Many here are raising eyebrows at Mr. Yar’Adua’s return from Saudi Arabia, where he was receiving treatment for a heart condition. Some suggest the move is motivated by a desire to undermine Mr. Jonathan’s time in office, rather than a sign of improving health. The president returned under the cover of darkness and has not yet been seen in public.
“The uncertainty here is huge now. No one knows who is in charge,” says Thompson Ayodele of the Initiative for Public Policy Analysis in Lagos, Nigeria’s financial capital. “The trigger for this seems to be that those close to the president see that they are losing power.”
Yar’Adua’s spokesman has said he will not return to work straightaway and Jonathan will stay in charge while he recuperates. However, no time-frame has been given for his recovery.
The US has also expressed concern over this week’s events in Nigeria, which is among its top five oil suppliers. “We hope that President Yar’Adua’s return to Nigeria is not an effort by his senior advisers to upset Nigeria’s stability and create renewed uncertainty in the democratic process,” Johnnie Carson, US assistant secretary of state, said in a statement this week.
During his short time at the helm, the acting president has been fairly proactive. He has shuffled cabinet ministers loyal to Yar’Adua and promised to work on a stagnating peace process with the Niger Delta militants. But he will now struggle to plan his time in office, as it could end at any moment.
Nigeria’s recent power vacuum has highlighted a culture of scheming within a small elite, which continues apace as most of the country’s 150 million people struggle with poverty and woeful infrastructure. The cabinet, which contains many Yar’Adua allies, resisted calls for a power transfer during the president’s absence even as problems mounted.
Civil society groups are demanding to know more about the president’s condition, saying the furtive nature of his return has provided little reassurance.
“This is about the state of his mind and body, not where he is,” said Yinka Odumakin of the Save Nigeria Campaign, a coalition that has campaigned for a handover since the president went overseas.
Yar'Adua has periodically gone overseas for treatment of various illnesses since taking office in 2007.
Meanwhile, political attention is fast turning toward next year’s elections. The race is on to be the candidate for the ruling People’s Democratic Party, which has kept a grip on power since the end of military rule in 1999. Yar’Adua may not be physically fit enough to run for a second term, while Jonathan seems to lack the political support to run on his own, analysts say.