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Yar'Adua Inauguration Marks Key Point for Nigeria

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo decorates his successor Umaru Yar'Adua during a swearing-in ceremony for the new president at Eagles Square in Abuja on May 29.
Pius Utomi Ekpei
AFP/Getty Images
Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo decorates his successor Umaru Yar'Adua during a swearing-in ceremony for the new president at Eagles Square in Abuja on May 29.
Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua waves to the crowd following a swearing-in ceremony at Eagles Square in Abuja on May 29.
Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Nigeria's President Umaru Yar'Adua waves to the crowd following a swearing-in ceremony at Eagles Square in Abuja on May 29.

The inauguration of Umaru Musa Yar'Adua as Nigeria's new president Tuesday marks a significant point in the nation's history — the first time since independence from Britain in 1960 that Nigeria has witnessed the peaceful transition of power from one elected civilian leader to another.

For most of its almost 47 years, Nigeria was led by the military.

But while Nigerians should be rejoicing that their country is engulfed in history-in-the-making, controversy over what many have described as fraudulent elections last month has cast a political pall over the inauguration of Yar'Adua.

The elections were criticized by Nigerian and foreign observer groups as deeply flawed.

Concerns over polling and voting have left questions about Yar'Adua's democratic legitimacy at the start of his four-year presidency. But Yar'Adua has pledged to introduce electoral reforms.

Relatively junior envoys were sent from Washington and London, the former colonial power, to witness the swearing-in ceremony, although Africa was better represented.

Yar'Adua was plucked from a political backwater by Nigeria's outgoing President Olusegun Obasanjo. He spent the past eight years as a fairly successful governor of his home state, Katsina, in the predominantly Muslim north. During those years, Yar'Adua was not in Obasanjo's powerful inner circle at Aso Rock in the capital, Abuja.

But the name Yar'Adua has resonance in Nigeria, home to Africa's largest population and the continent's top crude oil exporter.

Yar'Adua comes from the northern Muslim aristocracy – and a distinguished political family. His father was a minister in Nigeria's post-independence administration. His respected and charismatic elder brother, Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, was a soldier and coup-maker who served as the outgoing president's deputy when Obasanjo was a military head of state in the 1970s.

Both Shehu Musa Yar'Adua and Obasanjo were jailed and sentenced to death after being accused of plotting a coup in the 1990s against the late Gen. Sani Abacha, the most ruthless of Nigeria's military presidents. The former later died in detention, apparently the victim of an assassination.

As an undergraduate student in Nigeria's Ahmadu Bello University, Umaru Musa Yar'Adua was a self-confessed Marxist and criticized his elder brother's "capitalist" leanings.

But Umaru Musa Yar'Adua comes to the presidency with more than political pedigree. The former chemistry lecturer is Nigeria's first university-educated leader.

Yar'Adua is regarded as honest, prudent and principled by most Nigerians. But some say he is a slow starter. He was considered cautious and resolute in completing the projects he started for Katsina state.

Although he improved the road network and built schools, Yar'Adua reportedly failed to end water shortages and to ensure food security in his region.

His critics also say his family and friends benefited from lucrative building contracts, a charge denied by Yar'Adua.

Yar'Adua was among only a handful of Nigerian state governors to publicly declare his assets before he took office in 1999 — and he did so again when he was re-elected four years later. He also was one of just a few serving governors who did not face corruption investigations.

But Yar'Adua takes over the reins of power at a tricky time in Nigeria's history — and faces daunting challenges. Turbulence continues in the restive oil-producing Niger Delta. Exports of crude oil are sharply down, as armed militias attack pipelines and abduct foreign and Nigerian oil workers – almost 200 in 18 months. The possible threat of a strike over a fuel-price rise lingers.

The militant groups have made political demands, including wanting regional control of Nigeria's vast oil and gas resources, and have vowed to cripple production totally and drive foreign concerns out of the Niger Delta with a campaign of sabotage. More criminal elements are busy collecting ransom payment after delivering hostages.

Yar'Adua has conceded that the people of the Niger Delta have genuine grievances and has promised to make the crisis a priority.

Vice President Goodluck Jonathan comes from the region, a fact that could work for, or against, the new administration. The militants accuse Jonathan of being a government sellout.

Yar'Adua also will have to deal with regional poverty and underdevelopment, as well as national unemployment, political bullying and endemic corruption. And he needs to keep on the good side of the military – always a delicate task.

Nigeria's Nobel laureate for literature, Wole Soyinka, said his country was begging for a break in the cycle of incompetent and inhuman leadership. "Nigeria needs a genuine, authentic, but humane revolution."

Soyinka said Yar'Adua was an "unknown quantity" being sworn into power at a "perilous" time.

A former foreign minister, Bolaji Akinyemi, said, "I wish Yar'Adua had a honeymoon before facing the hard knocks of policy decisions, but he will be fighting many fires on the domestic front."

Observers believe that Yar'Adua will concentrate more on dousing home fires rather than continental infernos, unlike Obasanjo. Obasanjo became Africa's undisputed champion firefighter, crisscrossing the continent on conflict-resolution missions in Liberia, Darfur and elsewhere.

Obasanjo also represented the continent on the global political stage. Yar'Adua has neither Obasanjo's charisma nor his international standing.

But being handpicked by Obasanjo may become a liability for Yar'Adua. Nigerians are waiting to see how he handles that heritage.

After winning the governing People's Democratic Party's nomination, Yar'Adua paid tribute to his predecessor, describing Obasanjo as "the father of democracy and good governance in Nigeria." Yar'Adua pledged to continue his predecessor's economic reforms and fight against corruption, although the outgoing president's detractors say he pursued mainly his political foes.

Obasanjo has no intention of retiring from politics and there are suggestions he will be closely watching his successor's moves.

Obasanjo takes over the chairmanship of the party and has said he expects the PDP to determine policy — while the government implements it. Yar'Adua acknowledges that the party has a role to play, but he stresses that he derives his power from the constitution.

Much has been said about about Obasanjo hoping to continue pulling the political strings from behind the scenes once he has stepped down – including suggestions that he chose to back the sometimes diffident and soft-spoken Yar'Adua for that reason.

Those who know Yar'Adua say he will not be Obasanjo's puppet and must not be underestimated.

One Nigerian commentator put it this way: "Just because he is quiet, people mistake him for a weakling. But he's someone who knows his own mind."

Yar'Adua inherits a rich and complex African giant. His critics say running a poor agricultural state in the arid north may not be sufficient preparation for the challenges of governing a federal Nigeria, with its booming oil revenue and tapestry of religious, ethnic and political complexities.

And there are concerns about his health. In the middle of the presidential election campaign, Yar'Adua left Nigeria on a medical evacuation flight to Germany. He is known to have kidney problems.

Anxious Nigerians and observers wonder whether the new president has the necessary physical stamina and staying power for the task, stress and strain ahead.

Yar'Adua, a practicing Muslim, has dismissed reports of his ill health. He says God will decide when it is time for him to die, as with all other human beings.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton
Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.