Presidential candidate 'is not accessible'


By Estelle Shirbon

Katsina, Nigeria - The poor farmers, camel herders and market traders of far northern Katsina state give their governor credit for new roads and schools but few are so impressed that they want him to be Nigeria's next president.

Umaru Yar'Adua, who is little-known beyond the remote expanse of semi-desert he has governed for almost eight years, emerged as the ruling party's presidential candidate last month.

This makes him the front runner to succeed President Olusegun Obasanjo at the helm of Africa's most populous country and biggest oil producer after elections in April.

Back home in Katsina, there is little enthusiasm.

"He has tried. But in my village we still have no water and no power," said Dalha Tasiu, a subsistence farmer, as he loaded jerrycans of brown water from a stagnant reservoir onto an ox-drawn cart. He was taking the water home for drinking.

Asked who he would vote for in April, Tasiu did not hesitate: "Buhari," he said.

Muhammadu Buhari, a former army dictator who is also from Katsina, is a top opposition candidate. It was much easier to find Buhari supporters than people who would vote for Yar'Adua.

Elders say this is partly because the governor is reclusive.

"He has kept to himself. People complain that they don't know him, they don't see him. He is not accessible," said Ibrahim Coomasie, a respected state elder who knows Yar'Adua.

Many Nigerians are convinced Obasanjo backed the discreet Katsina governor so he could continue to pull the strings after the elections, but Yar'Adua's supporters and critics in his home state agreed that he would be no puppet.

Opponents called him headstrong while loyalists preferred the word resolute. Civil servants said he was a micro-manager who had ultimate control over what went on in every department.

Born in 1951, Yar'Adua comes from a famous political family.

His father was a minister in the first government after independence and his older brother was number two in Obasanjo's military regime in the late 1970s. Umaru Yar'Adua was a chemistry teacher until he went into business, then politics, in the 1980s.

Katsina is a traditional, Muslim state and one of the poorest in Nigeria. Farmers grow millet, sorghum, or beans in tiny plots dotted around the flat, barren landscape. They live in mud-brick villages, mostly without electricity or water.

More than a quarter of children die before their fifth birthday, according to the state's statistics from 2004.

Against this backdrop, Yar'Adua's record as governor offers a mixed picture. Everyone agrees he has built new roads and added much-needed classrooms to many schools, but critics say his administration has been disappointing in other key areas.

Yar'Adua says food security is a priority for Nigeria, but his government has not delivered it to Katsina. In 2005, foreign aid workers fed thousands of severely malnourished children in emergency camps in Katsina for months during a food crisis.

Almost no irrigation projects have come to fruition, while potable water remains in short supply. Even in the state capital, the taps run dry daily and residents rely on young boys who push carts loaded with jerrycans of water from boreholes.

The Jibiya dam and reservoir were built more than 15 years ago but not a drop of water flows through the network of cement irrigation canals because there is no fuel to run the pumps.

State government officials said the dam was a federal project and therefore it was not up to them to deal with it. But local farmers said the state government should have stepped in.

Katsina's budget grew during Yar'Adua's time, as did other state budgets, thanks to high oil prices that boosted Nigeria's export revenues. The state's projected spending in 2006 was 41,3-billion naira (about R2,3-billion), 30 percent more than in 2005.

Yar'Adua's opponents said there was not enough to show for the money spent for eight years and the priorities were wrong.

The state government headquarters, a sprawling complex of air-conditioned offices powered by generators, is the most expensive project completed by the administration to date.

The total cost was $29-million, of which $17-million was contracted to Lodigiani, a company chaired by a cousin of Yar'Adua. The top civil servant in the state ministry of works - also a cousin of the governor - said the contract was signed before Yar'Adua's time and he just revived it when in office.

State house of assembly members complained the government had never presented audited accounts as required by law. The state finance commissioner said these would be ready soon.

The general hospital in the state capital boasts a new dialysis unit, but health workers questioned whether this was a priority in a state facing acute problems in basic healthcare.

They said the addition was perhaps connected to Yar'Adua's own health. He suffered from a severe kidney condition a few years ago although friends say he has recovered.


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