The stability of Africa’s most populous state continues to defy the doomsayers. When the democratically elected president Olusegun Obasanjo ended his second term of office in 2007, a quiet, self-effacing academic, Umaru Yar’Adua took his place. Last week he died of heart disease, not yet 60.
Not everything Yar’Adua did was good. His most grievous sin was to fire Nuhu Ribadu, the pathbreaking head of the country’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission that successfully prosecuted many of Nigeria’s most egregiously corrupt governors. In spite of that, though, and his habit of associating with some of the most corrupt governors and “fixers” in the country, he achieved two highly significant things. The first was that he managed what his predecessor had tried and failed to achieve: come to terms with the armed militants who were bent on destroying the foreign-owned oil industry and the Niger Delta oil and gas that underwrites the economy. It is perhaps too early to judge whether his peace plan will hold up over the long term—some of the rebels have broken the truce—but it looks like a significant step forward.
The second was on the economic front. His appointments both to the finance ministry and the central bank were astute, even if the subsequent policies could have been better handled. The banks often remain poorly managed. Nevertheless, the result has helped Nigeria bounce back fast from the impact of the West’s great recession. Growth fell from over 8% a year to 5.6% last year, but an IMF report last month projected that it will be 7% this year and next. This is not just because of oil. The growth rate of the agricultural sector, the second fastest in Africa, has continued the trajectory begun under Obasanjo. If a second world commodity boom gets underway, then Nigerian agriculture is well positioned to take advantage of it.
Nigeria will miss Yar’Adua most of all, though, because of what made up the inner man. He was a Muslim through and through, and one who had thought deeply about what his beliefs meant. I found this out when I was the only foreign journalist to have a long interview with him during his presidential campaign.
“All religions get corrupted”, he told me. “But we should never forget that religion is about…