President Umaru Yar'Adua is seriously brain damaged, is not able to recognise anyone, including his wife Turai, and can no longer perform the functions of the office of the president, according to multiple sources who have spoken to NEXT on Sunday.
But this fact, which has left a nation of 150 million people rudderless and its government in disarray, is being concealed from the public through an elaborate scam orchestrated directly and energetically by the First Lady.
Turai Yar'Adua has barred all but two security and one civilian aide, and a legislator from having access to the president in a two-tier power loop of which she is the organising principal. The inner core consists of the president's chief security officer, Mohammed Tilde, and his military ADC, Mustapha Onoedieva; an infantry colonel from Edo State. Through Mrs. Yar'Adua, this small knot works with Shehu Inuwa Imam, a member of the House of Representatives from Katsina State who is the president's childhood friend; Tanimu Yakubu, the president's chief economic adviser; and Sayyadi Abba Ruma, the agriculture minister. She is also aided by Inuwa Baba, the senior private adviser to the president on protocol matters.
Mr. Baba is an old Yar'Adua family friend, so loyal that he once got into prison uniform to stay behind bars with Shehu Musa Yar'Adua, the elder brother of the current president. who died in Abacha's gulag in 1999.
The group has blocked all direct access to the rapidly ailing president, said sources in Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region and in Europe and the US.
Despite several trips to Saudi Arabia, no other Nigerian government official, including the president's principal private secretary, ministers, and governors, has succeeded in seeing the president, who vanished from our country 50 days ago and has not been heard from since.
The people working frantically to keep up this ruse, including Mr. Yakubu, have also gone to great lengths to deceive the public, by claiming they have spoken to a president who is unable to speak and has lost all powers of cognition.
In fact, we can confirm that senior government officials lied when they claimed that Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, who is next in line to succeed Mr. Yar'Adua, has spoken directly to the president.
Although Mr. Jonathan subsequently went along with the charade, he has confided in several people in recent days that he did not speak to the president at all, according to informed sources. "He is trying not to create any friction because he knows he is about to become the next president," one source told our reporters.
In a telephone conversation with NEXT on Sunday, the Attorney General of the Federation, Michael Aondoakaa, emphatically dismissed any notion that the president did not speak to any of the state officials. Mr. Aondoakaa said the vice president confirmed this claim himself that the dialogue took place,"No, that cannot be the case," Mr. Aondoakaa insisted on Friday.
Mrs. Yar'Adua now relies on an all-Saudi staff, including drivers, security personnel and others, in the hope that no Nigerian outside her Gang of Three on the ground in Jeddah can tell for certain what is going on. Such is the nearly impregnable ring of steel thrown around the fading leader that even his principal private secretary, David Edevbie, was unable to see him when he recently travelled to Saudi Arabia, ostensibly to get the "president" to sign the budget. We have learned that Mr. Edevbie was restricted to his hotel, where he received a visit from the president's chief security officer, who collected the documents and subsequently returned them "signed."
He may never come back
Even the president's closest and most powerful aides have accepted that Mr. Yar'Adua may never return as president. "It is over for this president," said one source at the centre of the nation's political firmament. "The question is when and how."
Virtually all those who spoke to NEXT did so on condition of anonymity, reflecting the sensitivity surrounding the president's rapidly deteriorating health and their own political calculations during an inevitable transition.
While the end is virtually certain, several sources said the First Lady is hoping to hold off any acknowledgment of Mr. Yar'Adua's incapacitation in the hope of lining up a friendly successor, including an effort to position Adamu Aliero, the minister of the federal capital territory and a close ally of the First Lady, as the new vice president once Mr. Jonathan steps up to the presidency as mandated by the constitution.
Other political forces, including former President Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as a claque of powerful former military officers led by Ibrahim Babangida, the former military president, are also pushing various candidates to be Mr. Jonathan's deputy (see accompanying story.)
However, many see Mr. Jonathan, a colourless former governor of tiny Bayelsa state and an accidental vice president, as a mere transitional figure who will hold power only until the next elections are held.
By that calculation, the ruling People's Democratic Party will honor its internal rotational arrangements to keep a northerner in the presidency for an additional term of four years. This would put a new vice president in pole position to become the PDP presidential candidate and be a sure bet to be the next president. The calculation is that, in Nigeria, votes do not count and the incumbent party is practically guaranteed to use every means to maintain itself in power.
In orchestrating her increasingly frantic efforts, Turai Yar'Adua' has proved an enthusiastic user of email as well as sms messages to friend and foe alike. She, with the gang wound tight around the president, has been working hard to sell the candidacy of Ailero to be Jonathan's deputy.
A government in chaos
The cloak of secrecy thrown around the president's status, and Turai Yar'Adua's determined push for an ally to succeed her ailing husband, have thrown our government into chaos. "Nobody knows what's going on," confessed one senior government official.
The cabinet, or federal executive council, is paralysed because it is in the dark. On a recent interview with BBC, for example, Ojo Maduekwe, the foreign minister, said, incredibly, that he had had "no cause" to speak to the president for the past six weeks! Information minister Dora Akunyili has issued statement after statement even though she has not had any contact with the president.
Yet the cabinet, which should by law start the process of declaring the president medically incapacitated, is refusing to lift a finger.
The sense of confusion has also stopped senior officials from coordinating their official actions. For example, according to our sources, Ahmed Yayale, the secretary to the government, had no idea that Mr. Edevbie had travelled to Saudi Arabia to try to see the president-until after the fact.
Even the security services are not immune to the governmental disarray. The director general of the State Security Services (SSS), Afakriya Gadzama is said to be angry that Mr. Tilde, the president's chief security officer, is no longer taking his calls.
As an employee of the SSS seconded to be at the president's side, Mr. Tilde is supposed to keep his agency in the loop regarding the president's safety.
That even the SSS chief is kept out of the loop is particularly jarring. Mr. Gadzama is after all widely considered a trusted aide of President Yar'Adua. The two go back as far as their high school days at Barewa College, where Mr. Yar'Adua, then a house prefect, appointed Mr. Gadzama to succeed him in 1971.
"If Turai doesn't trust Gadzama," said one source who is also a Barewa old boy, "that is how paranoid they have become."
This royal mess has left Abuja in a state of paralysis. "The government has ground to a halt," a senior official said last week. "Something will have to give very soon."