It has turned out to be one of the biggest cover-ups in the history of Nigeria. And some of the most powerful persons in the country are responsible for it.
An uncoordinated combination of silence, half-truths, and outright lies peddled by these men and women have formed an inscrutable web around President Umaru Yar'Adua, who, forty nine days ago, left Nigeria for Saudi Arabia in search of medical attention, for what his spokesperson described, in a press statement, as "pericarditis", an inflammation of the lining of the heart.
Since then, the days have turned into weeks, and the bogus claims from the corridors of power have grown even more ambitious.
Leading the pack is the country's attorney general and minister for justice, Michael Aondoakaa. His outrageous comments have attracted wide condemnation from public commentators.
Defending the president's decision to travel abroad without handing over to his vice, he said: "There is no evidence that he is not exercising his powers as president. He has his vice-president and his ministers whom he delegates power and functions to. He does not have to be in the country before he can exercise his power. He can do that anywhere. The president can delegate his power to anyone and he can even give instruction anywhere in the world, even on his sick bed."
Speaking through a spokesperson days after the president travelled, he referred to the trip as a "medical check-up and short vacation."
The chief economic adviser to the president, touted to be a leading member of the president's kitchen cabinet, was also quoted by a Nigerian daily as saying that the president had placed calls to the vice president, Goodluck Jonathan; the senate president, David Mark; and the speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, on the night of Tuesday January 5, 2010.
"The president's health condition has substantially improved. In the last week, I have spoken to him on telephone countless number of times," Mr. Yakubu is reported to have said. "Our conversations every time lasted more than five minutes."
The vice president has appeared particularly eager to convince Nigerians of his relevance, against a backdrop of rumours that he has effectively been sidelined in the affairs of the country. This desperation has made him an accomplice in the perpetuation of falsehoods regarding communication with the president.
Days after the president's departure, Vice President Jonathan, while receiving Sallah visitors on behalf of his principal, said: "This morning, I personally conveyed Mr. President's personal greetings. We spoke yesterday and even this morning. After this, I will even speak with him again. He asked me to convey his personal greetings to all Nigerians."
On January 6, at the end of the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting, the minister for information and communication, Dora Akunyili, told journalists that the vice president had confirmed to the council that he indeed spoke with the president, as disclosed by Mr. Yakubu.
Also deeply implicated in the charade is Bukola Saraki, the chairman of the Governor's Forum, which comprises all the 36 state governors. He has been one of the most vocal defenders of the president. In early December, newspapers widely reported that Mr. Saraki led a delegation to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to visit Mr. Yar'Adua in hospital. It is highly unlikely that they even sighted him, as NEXT's investigations reveal that the president was already brain-dead at the time they were supposed to have met with him.
Castigating the "anti-democratic individuals" behind the reports of the president's dismal state of health, Mr. Saraki told reporters, at the end of a meeting of the Governor's Forum last Wednesday, that the president "has now spoken with some people. We are happy to say that he is improving very well."
On his own part, the senate president, David Mark, has stuck to a religious theme since the president's disappearance. On the 30th of November, 2009, he asked Nigerians to embark on a Novena prayer for the President. The Novena prayer is a nine hour or nine-day Catholic prayer. Two weeks later, speaking at a thanksgiving service at the St. Mulumba Catholic Chapel in Abuja, he repeated his calls for prayers. Under his watch, the senate has also been unambiguous about its unwillingness to do anything to resolve the constitutional crisis caused by the president's absence.
The speaker of the House of Representatives has also clearly been helpless in the face of the president's refusal to hand over to his deputy. On 15 December, 2009 he overruled an attempt by a member of the House to raise a debate regarding the impropriety of the president's refusal to hand over, and then announced a January 12 date for the resumption of the House.
Also, through his spokesperson, he, like the vice president, also affirmed that he received a call from the president on the night of January 5.
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo who, in 2006, in the wake of a failed third term bid, chose President Yar'Adua as his successor, and, despite being aware of his health challenges, vigorously campaigned for him, falls into the class of those conspicuous by their silence. He has severally declined comments on his successor's health.
Ditto former military president Ibrahim Babangida, whose name has consistently come up in the series of permutations regarding the identity of the person who will succeed Vice President Jonathan, if or when Jonathan is sworn in as President.
A number of the leading contenders for the position are deeply linked to Mr. Babangida. Muhammed Gusau and Murtala Nyako, both former military officers, served in the Babangida administration as Chief of Army Staff and Chief of Naval Staff respectively. A third candidate, Jubril Aminu, served Mr. Babangida first as minister of education and later as minister of petroleum and mineral resources.
Messrs Obasanjo and Babangida, apart from being retired military men and former rulers of Nigeria, are both influential members of the ruling Peoples' Democratic Party (PDP). Mr. Obasanjo currently heads the PDP's Board of Trustees, which is the highest decision-making organ of the party.
‘Umaru, are you dead?'
The dubious resort to claims of telephone conversations with the president recalls the phone call placed publicly (and televised) by the then President Olusegun Obasanjo, on March 7, 2007, to Mr. Yar'Adua, who was conspicuously absent from the PDP residential campaign rally in Abeokuta. At the time, Mr. Yar'Adua was receiving treatment in Germany.
With the line in speakerphone mode, President Obasanjo famously asked the then presidential aspirant, "Umaru, are you dead?", to which he replied "I am alive."
This time around, the country waits desperately to hear the president himself dispel the news (exclusively reported by NEXT, in its Sunday, January 10, 2010 edition) that he is in a vegetative state and thus permanently unable to function as the president.
Until then, the rulership of the country appears to lie in the hands of the un-elected Federal Executive Council, supervised by the vice president.
Later this week (Friday, January 14), an Abuja High Court will resume hearing in a suit filed by constitutional lawyer, Femi Falana, seeking a declaration by the court "that the meetings of the Federal Executive Council held since November 23 2009 till date and the decisions taken there at are illegal and unconstitutional as they violate Section 148(2) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999."
Additional reporting by Ifedayo Adebayo, Elor Nkereuwem and Nicholas Ibekwe