LAGOS, Nigeria – Late Nigerian President Umaru Yar'Adua had a kidney transplant in 2002 while still a state governor in Africa's most populous nation, but avoided having another one while he was president over fears it would cause unrest, according to diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
The cables suggest Nigeria's top power brokers in its ruling People's Democratic Party knew about Yar'Adua's condition, but still propped him up to become the winning presidential candidate in 2007. Aides to the president stuffed his clothes to hide his weight loss and used makeup to hide his pallor, the cables claim, but his illness ultimately led to a long absence from the oil-rich nation that fueled public discontent.
Yar'Adua died in May 2010, propelling Vice President Goodluck Jonathan into the presidency. Jonathan recently became the ruling party's presidential candidate for the coming April election, upsetting a balance of power between the nation's Christian south and Muslim north.
"What is clear is that the president's health is a matter of growing concern, particularly on the minds of the northern Nigerian elite," a diplomatic cable from February 2009 reads. "We have noted a considerable uptick in what appears to be behind-the-scenes machinations and back-room dealing."
WikiLeaks publicly released the cables late Saturday night. A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, has said officials would have no comment on anything released by the website.
A diplomatic cable from June 2008 claims Yar'Adua first began experiencing renal failure in 1999, just as he became governor of the northern state of Katsina. The cable says German company Julius Berger, one of the dominant road construction firms in Nigeria, set up a dialysis clinic in Yar'Adua's home. The firm later would fly German experts in and out of Nigeria to privately treat Yar'Adua, the cables claim.
The cables claim Yar'Adua received the transplant in 2002 from donor Sayyadi Abba Ruma, who would serve as minister of agriculture and water resources when Yar'Adua came into power. Ruma denied the cable claim, calling WikiLeaks a "witch-hunting device" and "a strategy for blackmail."
"It never happened," Ruma told The Associated Press on Sunday night. "It's not true. It's malicious. It's mischievous."
The discolorations long noticed on Yar'Adua's face, fueling rumors about his ill health, came from the steroids doctors gave him to help his body accept the transplant, according to the cables.
Yar'Adua became president in 2007 through an election international observers described as rigged. His health continued to fail.
At a December 2008 event, Yar'Adua "appeared to weigh no more than 140 pounds (63.5 kilograms), his skin was very taunt, his handshake was weak, voice was fainter than on previous meetings, his eyes were deep set with dark circles underneath, and his teeth were also very badly tarred," the February 2009 cable reads.
Doctors apparently told Yar'Adua he needed a second transplant and Ruma's brother was sent to Germany to be checked as a possible donor, according to the cable. However, a planned trip got put on hold over political calculations.
"Yar'Adua did not take this planned trip given public reaction to rumors about travel and concerns about his ability to govern," the February cable reads. "We have no information on whether this trip may be rescheduled."
The president's health continued to worsen. Yar'Adua left Nigeria on Nov. 23, 2009, to seek medical treatment in Saudi Arabia. His physician later told journalists Yar'Adua suffered from acute pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac surrounding the heart. However, Yar'Adua's stay in Saudi Arabia drifted from days to weeks to months, stalling government activity in a nation vital to U.S. oil supplies.
Yar'Adua returned to Nigeria in late February 2010, but never appeared publicly. He died May 5.
Yar'Adua's death still reverberates through the country's political system. An unwritten power-sharing agreement in the ruling party calls for the nation's presidency to shift between the north and the south. Yar'Adua died before finishing the first of what politicians had assumed would be two, four-year terms.
Jonathan now faces minor party candidates from across the north in the April 9 presidential election. However, only the ruling People's Democratic Party has the muscle and money necessary to manipulate Nigeria's unruly electoral system.