Nigeria's first lady may take over

2010-02-26 09:37

Lagos - While Nigeria's ailing president remains unseen after being brought back into the country under the cover of darkness, his assertive wife Turai Yar'Adua has stepped into the spotlight in the oil-rich nation.

Analysts warn a new political struggle could envelop Africa's most populous country that for weeks had no clear leader but now has a stricken president, an acting president who was formally named in a move not contemplated in the constitution and an increasingly powerful first lady.

Turai - not her husband Umaru Yar'Adua - planned to meet privately with Acting President Goodluck Jonathan shortly after the president's return to Nigeria. Details on the planned encounter were not released. She controlled access to her husband while he was hospitalised for three months in Saudi Arabia, allowing only very close family members and a few aides to see him. Many Nigerians believe she also organised a military convoy that escorted Yar'Adua from Abuja's international airport when he returned home unannounced on Wednesday.

On Thursday, a headline in The Daily Sun newspaper proclaimed "Turai takes over".

"She is indeed the person I think is calling the shots," said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria who now is a fellow with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. "The basis of her ability to do it is because she controls access to the president."

New pressure

That control has allowed Turai to apparently bring Yar'Adua back into the country, putting new pressure on Jonathan. The vice president, who became acting president through an extra-constitutional vote of the National Assembly, has taken few public actions since taking power. Now with Yar'Adua back in the picture, it may mean Jonathan will do even less to avoid confrontation with the president and Turai.

Yar'Adua has not been seen in public since he suddenly left Nigeria on November 23 for Saudi Arabia for treatment of what his chief physician described as acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. The president also has kidney ailments. There was no official information on his whereabouts on Thursday.

Presidential spokesperson Olusegun Adeniyi did not return a call for comment on Thursday about Mrs Yar'Adua's role. In a newspaper interview published on December 16, he described her as "a warm, caring, not-in-your-face woman who wants her husband to succeed and who is eager to ensure stability on the home front and leverage her moral power for the greater good of the society".

But Nigerian media say she also has political savvy.

An editorial on Thursday in the newspaper NEXT said Mrs Yar'Adua must have lined up allies to "have pulled off this feat of sweeping into the country in the pre-dawn hours and rudely shoving aside the acting president, in addition to effectively overruling the National Assembly.

Power behind presidency

"All would have been impossible were Mrs Yar'Adua not already receiving support from powerful people in the security services and the bureaucracy," the newspaper said.

Yar'Adua left the country without formally putting Jonathan in power as acting president, forcing lawmakers to vote two weeks ago to put in him charge. However, the federal ministries remained stacked with Yar'Adua appointees and many in the military's ranks come from the Muslim north, as Yar'Adua does. Though military officials promised to stay out of politics, they did respond to a request from Yar'Adua's camp to send troops to attend his homecoming.

Nigerians have already known Mrs Yar'Adua as assertive. After becoming first lady in 2007, she led an effort to bring a cancer treatment centre to Abuja, the capital. Her image still graces billboards advertising the centre, her bearing regal and serious. Nigerian television and newspapers also routinely covered her actions, carrying images of her in traditional dress, her head covered by finely woven cloth in line with her Muslim beliefs.

Now, she may prove to be the power behind presidency.

"She's always been protective of the president," said Nnamdi Obasi, a Nigerian analyst with the International Crisis Group. "I think people are surprised she's gone this far."