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Nigerian President’s Absence Stymies Foreign Firms


DECEMBER 12, 2009


LAGOS, Nigeria — Foreign companies, already familiar with corruption and violence in Nigeria, are grappling with a new challenge: an absentee president.

The government of President Umaru Yar’Adua said this week that Nigeria’s leader, undergoing treatment for a heart condition in Saudi Arabia, was responding to treatment, addressing weeks of speculation about his health. “It is only his doctor that can determine or say when he will come back,” Information Minister Dora Akunyili told reporters.

The news left many foreign firms here, including U.S. oil company Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, in limbo as key oil licenses are set to expire.

nigeria president

Agence France-Press/Getty ImagesNigerian President Usman Yar’Adua, shown here in June, has often been out of Nigeria for medical treatments. Officials and foreign executives alike say sightings are infrequent and meetings with him are rare.

Mr. Yar’Adua — criticized for a plodding government and nicknamed “Baba Go-Slow” — has never been an easy person to meet, say Nigerian officials and company executives. But his extended trips abroad for medical care in recent months have made presidential audiences even rarer, fueling nervous speculation about who is actually running Nigeria, the world’s eighth-largest oil producer and Africa’s most populous nation.

A government spokesman for the president didn’t respond to several phone calls and messages seeking comment.

The president’s fitness for office has become an important question for investors, given the risks of doing business here — from widespread corruption to crumbling infrastructure to an often-violent militancy in the oil-producing Niger Delta region.

The situation is particularly delicate for foreign oil companies that are locked in negotiations over expiring oil licenses and tracking industry legislation now before Nigerian lawmakers.

Executives at Chevron, which has several multibillion dollar oil and gas installations in Nigeria, have been rebuffed in recent attempts to meet the president. “The administration definitely doesn’t want people to see him,” said a senior Chevron executive in Nigeria.


During a rare meeting in October with the president, executives from Royal Dutch Shell PLC were surprised when the president asked them to come and see him more often. The executives said they suppressed laughter, according to a person familiar with the meeting. In fact, this person said, the executives had been trying to see the Mr. Yar’Adua for months to smooth negotiations for renewing oil leases and to discuss changes in pending oil industry legislation but had been kept at bay by his advisers.

A Nigeria-based Shell executive said they had hoped to follow the example of ExxonMobil Corp., which successfully signed a 20-year extension on three oil licenses in November. “We thought we could sign the shallow-water licenses stuff right on the back of Exxon,” the executive said. “But then Yar’Adua left the country so all that got put on hold.”

The person familiar with the Shell meeting said the president was sharp but appeared physically weak. But another international executive said the health problems are exaggerated and that government decision makers are readily accessible.

“Yes, the president could be healthier and he has a fragile constitution, but he is not near his deathbed,” said Roland Ebelt, managing director of Nigerian Bottling Co., which distributes Coca-Cola in Nigeria. “The problem is that he doesn’t actually spend much time in his office” because of his health.

Last month, Mr. Yar’Adua was flown to a hospital in Saudi Arabia to receive treatment for an undisclosed ailment — the fourth trip abroad for treatment in his 2½ years in office, the government says. After a public outcry, a the information minister said Wednesday the president was suffering from acute pericarditis, a serious heart condition.

Mr. Yar’Adua also suffers from a long-term kidney ailment and is a chain smoker, according to senior government officials.

Last week, in a letter published in several local newspapers, a group of more than 50 prominent Nigerians called for the president to resign because he is too ill to hold office. In response, the federal cabinet reaffirmed its support for the president and said he remains fit to hold the nation’s highest office.

A senior Nigerian government official said the average wait time for ministers to see the president is three months. “We go to the villa and sit in the waiting room, waiting for hours,” the official said. “Then his secretary will come out and say he’s tired and can’t see anyone and sends us home. After a few times like this you stop trying.”

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A15 and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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