Associate Fellow, Africa Programme

The announcement of the death of Nigeria's President, Umaru Yar'Adua, should not have come as a surprise. His poor health has been a major feature of his short-lived presidency. His three month absence after he travelled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment in November 2009 left Nigeria without a leader as he failed to hand over executive powers to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan. A political and legal struggle ensued until Jonathan was eventually given clearance to assume the role of Acting President in February 2010.

A Series of Failed Promises?

From the moment he was sworn in in May 2007, it was obvious that Umaru Yar'Adua would not face an easy time in office. It was never going to be simple to follow in the footsteps of the flamboyant former president, Olusegun Obasanjo and Yar'Adua spent much of the early part of his presidency shrugging off accusations that he was a stooge of the former leader. But the comparisons refused to go away and the Nigerian media, frustrated by Yar'Adua's slow pace, dubbed him 'Baba Go Slow' in reference to the country's legendary traffic jams. Yar'Adua, determined to silence his critics, set out to prove that he was distinctive from Obasanjo and that there was only one ruler in Aso Rock.

Legal challenges to his legitimacy as president hindered any major policy making early in his presidency. This shook investor confidence and damaged Nigeria's position as a major continental player.

Upon entering office he set about reviewing some of the initiatives of the previous administration. Two of the boldest examples of this are Yar'Adua's decision to revoke several of the 'oil for infrastructure' deals brokered by Obasanjo and his overhaul of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) which resulted in the removal and eventual exile of its revered Chairman, Nuhu Ribadu.

The deals, which gave Asian companies priority on oil projects in return for infrastructure development, were criticised after several companies failed to deliver on their promises. There was also frustration in Nigeria at Yar'Adua's failure to make good on his promise to improve the erratic electricity supply.

Yar'Adua also promised to continue the economic and social reforms undertaken by the previous government, but a serious banking scandal hit Nigeria in 2009 and the Central Bank was forced to bail out nine major Nigerian banks.

Nigeria's regional social problems resurfaced during Yar'Adua's presidency. Religious and ethnic tensions escalated in Nigeria's volatile middle belt, and violence continued among militants in the oil producing Niger-Delta region.

Unfair Legacy?

It would be unfair and inaccurate to dismiss Umaru Yar'Adua's presidency as a series of failed promises. What he should be remembered for is aiming to bring about peace in the Niger Delta in the form of an amnesty. He should also be credited with appointing a visionary Central Bank Governor whose programme of reforms helped clean up and energise Nigeria's thriving banking sector.

Sadly, most people will probably remember the undignified way in which he was exploited during his illness and his inability to truly reach out to the Nigerian people.

What now?

Goodluck Jonathan will now have to consider his own political aspirations and decide if he wishes to contest the 2011 presidential elections. If he chooses to run for president, he needs to decide whether to try and reform the People's Democratic Party (PDP) and encourage meritocratic rule. His other option will be to form his own party or join another group to try and break the PDP stronghold.

One could argue that Jonathan's tenure as acting President was the easy part. Steering Africa's most populous nation out of mourning and into credible elections will present President Jonathan with a fresh set of challenges.


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