LAGOS, Nigeria — Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, whose election marked the country’s first peaceful transition of power from one civilian to another, has died following a debilitating illness that sparked a leadership crisis in Africa’s most populous country. He was 58.
Yar’Adua’s death Wednesday comes almost three months after his vice president assumed control of Africa’s most populous nation and less than a year away from the next presidential elections in a nation once plagued by military coups.
Spokesman Olusegun Adeniyi said Yar’Adua died at the Aso Rock presidential villa with his wife Turai at his side. Adeniyi and other officials did not give a cause of death.
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Yar’Adua had a long history of kidney ailments and recently suffered from an inflamed heart.
Yar’Adua will be buried before sundown Thursday afternoon in his home state of Katsina in accordance with his Muslim faith, said Ima Niboro, a spokesman for Goodluck Jonathan, the country’s acting president.
“Nigeria has lost the jewel on its crown and even the heavens mourn with our nation tonight,” Jonathan said in a statement. Jonathan added that the country should stay home from work Thursday as part of seven days of mourning for Yar’Adua.
Top government ministers flooded into the presidential villa late Wednesday night to meet with Jonathan, who offered condolences to Yar’Adua’s wife before beginning work as the country’s head of state, Niboro said.
Under Nigeria’s constitution, Jonathan now becomes president until the next elections scheduled to be held by April 2011 — less than a year away. He also will nominate a vice president, subject to Senate approval.
U.S. President Barack Obama called Yar’Adua a man of “profound personal decency and integrity.”
“President Yar’Adua worked to promote peace and stability in Africa through his support of Nigerian peacekeeping efforts as well as his strong criticism of undemocratic actions in the region,” Obama said in a statement.
Born into one of Nigeria’s best-known political families in 1951, Yar’Adua got his start as the governor of Katsina state. The soft-spoken former chemistry professor later emerged as the consensus pick among the ruling Peoples’ Democratic Party, run by then-President Olusegun Obasanjo, a former military dictator.
Yar’Adua’s election as president in 2007 was meant to end a cycle of military takeovers and cement democratic rule. However, international observers said the vote was rigged even though Yar’Adua wasn’t widely considered responsible.
“We acknowledge that our elections were not perfect and had lapses and shortcomings,” Yar’Adua said in his inaugural address. “I also believe that our experiences represent an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.”
That admission alone offered a break from the bluster that characterized Yar’Adua’s predecessors, including some of Africa’s most famous “Big Men.”
Yar’Adua took office in a country notorious for corruption and gained accolades for being the first leader to publicly declare his personal assets when taking office. But enthusiasm for his presidency waned as time passed and he made no headway in fighting entrenched corruption.
He had tried to peacefully end an insurgency in Nigeria’s oil-producing Niger Delta that had attacked the petroleum infrastructure, allowing Angola to overtake Nigeria as Africa’s leading oil exporter but those efforts frayed due to his increasing illness.
He flew away on long overseas trips to Germany and Saudi Arabia, where he availed himself of first-class medical treatment for his chronic kidney ailments. Meanwhile Nigerians saw little improvement in their own country’s hospitals and health care system.
Yar’Adua also was unable to stem religious violence in a country split between the Christian-dominated south and its Muslim north.
Yar’Adua went to a Saudi Arabian hospital on Nov. 24 to receive treatment for what officials described as a severe case of pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart that can cause a fatal complication. He failed to formally transfer his powers to Jonathan, sparking a constitutional crisis in Nigeria, home to 150 million people.
Jonathan assumed the presidency Feb. 9 after a vote by the National Assembly while Yar’Adua was still in Saudi Arabia.
Lawmakers left open the possibility for Yar’Adua to regain power if he returned to the country in good health. He returned on Feb. 24 but never reappeared in public and did not assume power again.
Yar’Adua leaves behind his wife, Turai, and nine children.