I understand that the world is going through a lot right now with Trump fencing with his American comrades, Britain uncertain over Brexit, and the continued carnage in the Middle East. That is so much for the world to digest, but I would beg the world’s indulgence to allow me add more to its plate. You see, a president is missing. Well, not exactly missing, but missing all the same. Out of the abundance of my selfishness, I think we need to temporarily ignore the world’s problems and talk about this president.
“The media advisor says he is sick. The VP says he is hale and hearty. And now the senator says he’s just tired.”
—Tweet by @BBCAfrica
The quote above is from a commentary on the BBC World Service. I chose to use it because it captures the confusion presently engulfing Nigeria. It has been over two weeks since President Muhammadu Buhari travelled to the UK on vacation. At his departure time, it was announced that he would have a routine medical check during the trip. Then the rumour mills began to grind, spinning out tales of Buhari’s ill-health. Some went as far as claiming he was dead. Meanwhile, the presidency released pictures ostensibly discrediting the death rumours, forgetting the availability of cheap audio-visual tools. Everyone waited for February 6, the day he was to resume his presidential duties.
On February 5, reports emerged that Buhari had written to the Nigerian Senate to extend his vacation. The intriguing thing was that this new letter makes no mention of when he is to return to Nigeria. It simply said he needed to do some tests and await results. Expectedly, the polarization has continued. Not just political polarization, but polarization blended with confusion. One of his spokesperson, Femi Adesina, made the “mistake” of saying he had not spoken with the president but had been in touch with those around him. Maybe one of those go-betweens is Buhari’s 84-year-old sister who claims she speaks with him every day, and has asked Nigerians to pray for the health of a president whom some others say is very healthy. The implication of this drama is that Buhari has taken an indefinite leave of absence to return anytime in the near future.
In some ways, this is like déjà vu. In 2009, President Yar’adua proceeded to Saudi Arabia under sketchy conditions, throwing the country into daylight confusion, with allegations of a cabal running the presidency on his behalf. The events of this sad episode led to the amendment of the Nigerian constitution to avoid the power vacuum created by the unavailability of a sitting president. In Buhari’s case, he wrote to the senate, officially transferring power to the vice-president to hold the fort until he returns. What Nigerians cannot be certain is whether Acting-President Yemi Osinbajo actually yields power or is a mannequin for unseen principalities.
Since I have had your attention up to this point, I would like to further discuss Buhari’s health via four peepholes. Let’s start with the shame of medical tourism. The handlers of the Nigerian government from 1960 to date should be happy that a president has to travel abroad for medical treatment. The state of healthcare in Nigeria is not indicative of the available indigenous human capital in the medical field. Thanks to the vegetative state of Nigerian medicine, many healthcare professionals have emigrated to sane countries to grow their careers. Nigeria’s hospitals tell a story of inadequate facilities, insufficient drugs, unavailable equipment, erratic power supply and low morale among staff. This is what the normal Nigerian suffers. Those with money or the ability to raise money seek treatment abroad. While some can only afford to go abroad for serious medical conditions, some do not even trust Nigerian hospitals for mere headaches.
Medical tourism was one of things Buhari railed against during his election campaign. Today, he is doing the same thing. His handlers may cook up excuses like saying his UK doctors have his medical history. This excuse is beautiful nonsense. As president, he should be showing confidence in Nigerian doctors. If we want to complain about poor medical facilities, the State House supposedly has a standard hospital. If that isn’t sufficient, there should be some private facilities in Nigeria that can treat his excellency. Or is it that he does not trust Nigerian hospitals to keep his condition secret? Whatever is the case, when Buhari returns, maybe he would consider looking at the demons holding back good medical care from ordinary Nigerians.
From the second peephole, I see issues around a right to privacy for the president. Frankly, I consider this argument plainly silly. It appears some persons choose not to understand what “public” in “public servant” means. Before someone would argue that civil servants are also public servants, we should be honest to accept that the president is not the same as a civil servant. You cannot run for the presidency and then claim that your health is a private matter despite your health bills being paid by public funds. The day Buhari took the oath of office, he lost claim to privacy. He is now public property, at least until 2019. That is all I would say.
Then we come to the issue of the Nigerian constitution, which appears to have more loopholes than a basket filled with water. After the Yar’adua incident, the constitution was amended to avoid uncertainty about who yields presidential power at any point in time. However, while the constitution mandated the transfer of power to the vice-president, it did not specify how long a “acting president” can act. Effectively, Buhari can sit in London until 2019 and remain president since it can be assumed that the federal executive council would not make any move to ascertain his health, nor would the senate succeed in impeaching him.
Finally, Buhari’s elongated vacation lends credence to the saying that “what goes around comes around”, or put more succinctly, “karma is a bitch”. When Yar’adua was away in Saudi Arabia under similar secrecy, Lai Mohammed, then spokesman of the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria, came hard at the presidency, and asked for daily updates about his health. The ACN metamorphosed into the All Progressive Congress, and Lai is now the Minister of Information. The same person who tackled Yaradua’s handlers for hiding the president has now had a mouth reassignment surgery, and happily provides Nigerians with sufficient disinformation to earn his pay. He must be wondering why the internet never forgets.
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