by Theophilus Abbah & Nasir L. Abubakar:

President Umaru Musa Yar’adua’s long medical sojourn in Saudi Arabia ended early this morning when two planes landed at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport, Abuja. While the first plane, an air ambulance, landed at 1.47am, a second one, the presidential aircraft, landed at 1.54am. As soon as the first plane landed, the small convoy of cars already waiting at the Presidential Lounge drove to the tarmac and came to a stop near it. There were about five cars, one of which was a Ford ambulance recently acquired by the State House.

Soon after the two planes landed, Daily Trust learnt that a large group of security agents and Foreign Ministry protocol officials who moved towards them were chased away by presidential bodyguards. Only a handful of bodyguards and the planes’ crew members were allowed near the planes as the president alighted, so it was not clear whether he walked into the waiting cars or was helped into them. The scene was also dark, but the ambulance was seen moving towards the parked planes.

Yar’adua had been away from the country for 90 days. He had earlier departed Jeddah, Saudi Arabia at 9pm Nigerian time [11pm local Saudi time] last night in a convoy of three different aircraft.

Indications that Yar’adua was about to depart the Saudi Kingdom first became manifest yesterday when a long convoy of royal cars and police escort vehicles were seen at the Royal Guest House in Jeddah, where he had been recuperating for several weeks since he left the King Faisal Hospital in December. At around 7pm Nigerian time yesterday, the convoy drove out to the airport, and two hours later the president’s plane departed for Nigeria.

Signs of his return however became more visible as the night wore on, and our reporters saw columns of soldiers with armoured personnel carriers taking positions at Wuse, at the intersection between the Airport Road and Olusegun Obasanjo Way. Our reporters also saw a small convoy of cars sweeping into the airport’s presidential wing at about 11pm. It included a Ford ambulance.

Yar’adua’s return plans were a tightly-kept secret, as several government officials said last night that they were unaware of the president’s impending return. However, there were indications that Acting President Goodluck Jonathan’s office got wind of them, because some items on his itinerary for today were hastily cancelled. Jonathan’s office had earlier invited media chiefs from all over the country to dine with him in Abuja tonight, but late in the afternoon yesterday, officials called and cancelled the dinner without advancing any reasons. Earlier yesterday, Jonathan held a long meeting with Niger Delta community leaders and state governors, following which he suspended the on-going Niger River dredging project.

Daily Trust also learnt that the 6-man delegation of Federal Ministers that arrived in Jeddah early in the morning yesterday delivered the Nigerian government’s letter of thanks to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal. The letter, addressed to Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, thanked him for his generous hospitality to Yar’adua while the treatment lasted.

However, the ministers’ plans to fly on to Jeddah to see Yar’adua were aborted when they heard that the ailing president was already on his way to the airport, on his way home. The ministers then quickly changed their plans and are expected to return to the country this morning, in time for today’s meeting of the Federal Executive Council, likely to be chaired by Yar’adua himself.

The ministerial delegation, led by Foreign Affairs Minister Chief Ojo Maduekwe, comprised Secretary to the Government of the Federation Mahmud Yayale Ahmed, Health Minister Professor Babatunde Osotimehin, Petroleum Minister Dr. Rilwanu Lukman,  Agriculture Minister Dr. Abba Sayyadi Ruma as well as Attorney General and Minister of Justice Adetokunbo Kayode, SAN. Their trip was at the behest of the FEC, which directed them on Wednesday last week to undertake the trip, officially billed to thank the Saudi King and to see Yar’adua. Many observers however saw it as the first step in invoking Section 144 of the Constitution to declare Yar’adua permanently incapacitated from holding his office.

Yar’adua had been out of the country since November 23, last year when he left for Jeddah to treat an ailment later described as pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart’s linings. The president also has a long history of kidney disease. Two weeks ago, when Yar’adua failed to transmit a letter of medical vacation, the National Assembly unanimously passed a resolution recognising Vice President Goodluck Jonathan as Acting President. He is expected to relinquish the role today with Yar’adua’s return.

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