Umaru Yar’Adua, Nigeria’s president, has sacked two ministers on suspicion of stealing public funds, a sign he is adopting a more assertive style after surviving a legal challenge last month to his election victory.
By Matthew Green in Lagos
The ministers were the first to be forced out since Mr Yar’Adua appointed his cabinet in July, three months after winning elections so badly flawed that many Nigerians believed they barely merited the name.
But the sackings, coupled with a series of moves that have challenged the standing of his predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo, suggest Mr Yar’Adua is starting to shake off the legacy of the way he came to power.
“He’s getting into his comfort zone,” said one lawmaker in Mr Yar’Adua’s ruling People’s Democratic party. “Clearly, he’s feeling much stronger.”
The dismissals of Adenike Grange, the health minister, and Gabriel Aduku, the junior health minister, have fuelled expectations that Mr Yar’Adua will reshuffle his cabinet before May 29, the one-year anniversary of his swearing-in.
Investors are keen to see the president appoint a more heavyweight team, concerned he has been slow to solve a chronic power crisis, tackle an insurgency hurting the oil industry and attract investment.
Mr Yar’Adua will also need a strong political hand if he wants to succeed in doubling oil output in Africa’s biggest producer by raising new investment in joint ventures with majors such as ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell.
The presidency issued a statement saying the two health ministers had resigned so they would be able to clear their names of corruption charges brought by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, an anti-graft agency.
Despite the statement’s reference to “voluntary resignations”, a source said the president had told the pair to step down. Fourteen senior health ministry officials were suspended.
The presidency said the officials were being investigated over allegations they had not followed a presidential directive to return unspent budgets at the end of 2007. Newspapers have reported that health ministry officials spent 300m naira ($2.7m, €1.7m, £1.3m) on contracts and Christmas gifts.
Mrs Grange issued a statement saying she was not guilty of any wrongdoing but would, as the minister in charge of the ministry, accept responsibility for the episode. Mr Aduku made no immediate comment. The sackings will provide some reassurance to campaigners who say the government has made scant progress on fighting graft since an unprecedented wave of arrests of powerful former state governors last year.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Dapo Oyewole, executive director of the Centre for African Policy and Peace Strategy in Lagos. “But a real strong indicator would be if the president would go so far as to take down some of the sacred cows that have been left untouched.”
Supporters of Mr Yar’ Adua say he has gained a freer hand since judges quashed an attempt to overturn April’s elections last month, although the rival candidates who brought the case are appealing.
Mr Yar’Adua has also mounted a growing challenge to the influence of Mr Obasanjo, a former general who anointed him as successor. The president’s supporters say they thwarted attempts by Mr Obasanjo to install his preferred candidate as head of the ruling party at its convention this month.