Enlarged posters and newspaper pages for the YarAdua presidential campaign
Enlarged posters and newspaper pages for the Yar’Adua presidential campaign

Is Shehu Musa Yar’Adua the best president Nigeria never had? This was the question on my mind as I walked through the exhibition in memory of the late soldier-turned-politician, tucked inside the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Centre, the fancy structure in Abuja’s Central District, commissioned in 2002 and named after the man widely regarded as a “bridge builder”.

Other than his vaguely familiar name and the historical fact that he was Second-In-Command during the Olusegun Obasanjo regime (1976-79), I knew next to nothing about the introverted but illustrious Katsina-born young man who evolved into a brave soldier and one of Nigeria’s finest politicians. So anyone will understand my shock and surprise as I read tribute after glowing tribute paid to him by friends and associates after his death in detention in December 1997.

“Yar’Adua was a man of principles, and he was a man of strong will,” says comrade Muhammadu Jega. “We used to call him a ‘man of ideas’. He was a very good commander and he has done very well in very difficult situations.”

Of him the late Senate President Chuba Okadigbo says: “The characteristic feature of Yar’Adua was his capacity to get things done by bringing people together. Shehu was never a vacillator; he was a problem solver. He was a man of the future.”

My astonishment went full circle when I learned—staring at campaign posters, speeches and newspaper records—that Yar’Adua actually contested for president in 1992. “Our vision is for a new Nigeria with a common sense of purpose and a common destiny,” goes one paragraph from his presidential declaration at the City Hall in Lagos (25 February 1992). “A Nigeria that is neither North nor South, West nor East, but [one] dedicated to the common good of all.”

Pelu Awofeso  viewing the YarAdua  exhibits

Give me a candidate with such motivations and I would vote for him any day, any time. Sadly, Yar’Adua could not fulfill his dreams: the electioneering process was cancelled by the junta in power for flimsy reasons. And for daring the dictatorship and calling for a return of democracy, Yar’Adua was arrested in 2006 and detained. After 18 months in confinement and denied basic medical care in the federal prison in Abakaliki, he died in December 1997, aged 54.

“…a painful death with little dignity, deprived by official order of the comfort and support of family and friends,” reads the prologue to his biography Shehu Musa Yar’Adua: A Life of Service. “Although he was a husband, a father and a man who enjoyed a vast array of supporters and colleagues, he died quite alone…It was a sad conclusion to a life that had been extraordinary and full.”

Yar'Adua's arrests and death in detention made frontpage news
Yar’Adua’s arrests and death in detention made front-page news
Yar'Adua's uniforms
Yar’Adua’s uniforms

Reading all of these insights on Yar’Adua had me reflecting on how cruelly Nigeria has treated many of her honourable citizens—Ken Saro-Wiwa, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti and Murtala Mohammed all came to mind.

The exhibition, which bears the same title as the biography, showcases some of the key milestones of Yar’Adua’s short but salutary life; also on display are some of his personal effects—notebooks, chieftaincy costume and ceremonial uniform, to mention just three. All of these serve as backdrop of sorts to a parallel exhibition of Nigeria’s evolution from British colony to independent country.

Yar’Adua wrote many letters from prison, some to world leaders at the time (President Jimmy Carter and Ambassador Andrew Young inclusive); he also received postcards from around the world, some of which are also on display.

But it is Yar’Adua’s letter to his son Buhari that defines his essence in my reckoning as a man who saw wealth, not in worldly possessions but in legacy. “I would not have achieved anything if after I am gone, all I leave behind for you are empty houses and some bank accounts,” he wrote in September 1996, from Abakaliki. “For these are nothing—they can be acquired by any idiot.”

As I stepped out of the exhibition, it is the tribute by President Obasanjo that rang loudly in my ears: “[Yar’Adua] lived for the ordinary people of this country. He lived so that this country can make progress. He lived for democracy. And he died for what he lived for.” @PeluAwofeso