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
Royal Dutch Shell
PLC, in limbo as key oil licenses are
set to expire.
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
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.
Shell executive said they had hoped to
follow the example of
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.
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.,
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
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
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